Labor kills the plebiscite (why this might be good news)

I love Eternity News; I think the team at Eternity do a great job of representing the views of the width of the Aussie church, of giving adequate space to complex issues, and of using their platform to tell positive stories about people whose lives have been changed for the better because Jesus has made ‘eternity’ good news rather than a soul-depressing reminder of our smallness, and bad news when it comes to God’s judgment. So I enjoy writing for them and answering questions; even if they have to edit me…

Eternity ran a piece on Labor knocking  the plebiscite on the head which includes some of the reasons I gave for this maybe not being such a bad thing. It was edited, because it had to be. But I quite liked some of the bits they cut so thought I’d post my whole response (I’m not suggesting I was misrepresented or anything silly like that). Also; while I’m billed as being a Presbyterian Minister and from Creek Road (and these things are true), don’t assume I’m speaking for either institution, like you I’m just an idealistic voter with an opinion…

I love liberal democracy; especially when governments made up of elected representatives who are elected for their character and ability to make decisions aim for more than simply holding power by looking after the majority.

I think we should pursue a more idealised version of democracy than the one we’re given and hold our leaders to this sort of standard, that we should call them to govern not just for the liberty of those who voted for them, but for other communities of people within the community who didn’t.

In a secular, pluralistic democracy like ours there are lots of views of human flourishing. As a Christian, who thinks flourishing is ultimately about the Holy Spirit transforming us into the image of Jesus, I have a certain sense of what the ‘good life’ looks like; but I understand that many of my neighbours hold different convictions. Democracy has to be a balancing act where those convictions are held in tension, and people are free to hold them, and work towards them.

I didn’t think the plebiscite was the best mechanism for making a decision about Same Sex Marriage because it is inconsistent with some of the values of a liberal democracy; plebiscites seek to guide decision makers based on what’s popular — they’re the ultimate opinion poll — I’d rather our politicians make decisions based on what’s right; and what maintains our ability to live well with people who disagree with us.

There are many arguments for and against same sex marriage that flow out of different understandings of human flourishing, and the decision is much more complicated than some of our political leaders and Church leaders allow.

There’s a very good case to be made for gay marriage in a secular democracy if we think of it as something akin to a matter of religious freedom for those whose equivalent of God, their object of worship, and their vision of what it means to flourish as a person, is caught up with having as much sex in the context of a loving relationship as possible.

If we want religious freedom and protection from those who think our views are wrong and have no place in public, we should be prepared to offer it to others. There are, of course, very convincing arguments for Christians to maintain God’s definition of marriage as the one flesh relationship between one man and one woman, forsaking all others, for life; personally I’d love us to be able to maintain that definition within our community and in public life, for as long as possible because I believe it is both good for people, and that it’s a picture of the relationship created by the Gospel; I simply don’t expect my neighbours to be convinced of this goodness, nor that legal definitions should reflect my view and not theirs.

One danger of moving away from the plebiscite and potentially moving to the better, more democratic, option of the vote on the floor of parliament is that we lose the discussion that would’ve accompanied it and that the majority view will simply be imposed on different minority views in a different form of populism. The language that Labor leader Bill Shorten is using around those who oppose Same Sex Marriage worries me because it seems intolerant, and it seems to beg the question somewhat; he framing it as a decision about what sort of love our society will accept when those opposed seem much more interested in talking about what marriage itself is, it’d be great for Christians to be able to have good discussions with our neighbours about how marriage is part of God’s design, and ultimately about how it reflects the love God has for his people and the oneness we experience with God when we follow Jesus. Apart from the need to have this conversation robustly, and charitably, I’d love it to happen quickly because I believe this conversation has been a massive distraction from other priorities, and that it has made it look like the good news of Jesus is not good news for our LGBTQI neighbours; there are much bigger issues we should be staring down as God’s people in Australia, and it has also kept us from the priority of confidently and winsomely offering the Gospel — the offer of resurrected life in Jesus — as the best place to understand what it means for people to flourish.


How Luke Cage and Daredevil are (good) images and imitators of Jesus (and why the original is still better)

“It costs to be a saviour. Ask Jesus” — Cottonmouth, Luke Cage, Episode 5

Marvel’s partnership with Netflix has produced some of the best and most thought-provoking television of the last two years. When I say this what I really mean is that this partnership has continued the trajectory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in modernising the Epic genre, and that they’ve perhaps been the TV series most deliberately and overtly engaged with Christianity. What I mean is that my thinking has been provoked, because they’re exactly the sort of storytelling I’ve spent tens of thousands of words playing with over the last year… whether in the series exploring how superheroes might help re-enchant our view of the world, or my review of Daredevil Season 2.

Few cultural artefacts have excited my inner-overthinker more than the series released through this partnership: Daredevil (1 & 2), Jessica Jones, and now Luke Cage. Luke Cage has been out for over a week, and I’ve been wanting to write about it for days and days now… so here’s the obligatory spoiler warning.


Luke Cage is the story of the eponymous hero; an indestructible, hoodied, black man in the New York neighbourhood of Harlem.

Luke Cage differs from Daredevil’s Matt Murdock in certain key ways that play out in their respective Netflix storylines, but that are worth teasing out a little (mostly for funsies).

Murdock is very destructible; so destructible that his cuts and bruises reflect the struggles of his neighbourhood and are the price he pays for his heroism, while bullets bounce of Cage such that he becomes an inspiration for his neighbours in his adopted kingdom. There’s a great point in the season where the people of Harlem start wearing bullet-hole riddled hoodies as a sign of solidarity with Cage; a powerful statement in the #blacklivesmatter era.

Murdock is at home in Hell’s Kitchen, while Cage is an outsider; drawn to Harlem in part by circumstance, but increasingly both because of his mission and his love for what Harlem represents as a beacon for Black culture, and those he seeks to save.

Daredevil’s powers are the result of an accident that left him partly disabled (blind, but hyper-sensitive), Cage’s powers are the result of a scientific experiment that left him super-human.

Daredevil is masked, while Cage is open about his identity (with the exception of his hoodie, which does not so much hide him but identify him with those he protects).

Daredevil’s costume is bulletproof (because his skin isn’t), Cage’s hoodie is bullet riddled (because his skin isn’t).

Cage is black, Murdock is white. This, in itself, is the most significant feature of the series and the one that makes it the most compelling piece of media produced in an America coming face to face with race issues in a time where black men are seemingly routinely shot because of what, to an outsider, looks like deep systemic issues, but as a white Aussie I’m certainly not qualified to write about that stuff, so it’ll only come up tangentially in this post, but I’d highly recommend reading black voices on this stuff because the idea that Luke Cage is racist because its hero, and most of its characters, are black is frankly ridiculous (perhaps even more patently so given that the trajectory of this series is The Defenders where Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage team up).

But, paradoxically, it’s the similarities between the heroes, not the differences, that provide some of the most interesting contrasts. Both are going up against devilish villains hell-bent on the destruction of their idealised visions of their neighbourhood homes, idyllic visions of their place, and thus the sort of heroism required to get there, that they, in a real sense, embody. Daredevil is to Hell’s Kitchen what Cage is to Harlem. Both are trying to bring light to a dark place. Perhaps most profoundly, both are deeply influenced by Christianity. Murdock is a practicing Catholic who routinely spends time in confession and who sees himself as the Good Samaritan, and sees his mission in parallel with the crucifixion of Jesus. Cage is the son of a ‘celebrity’ (at a local level) preacher from a black church in Georgia who draws on Black Liberation Theology’s favourite passage in Luke 4 when choosing his name after his resurrection.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” — Luke 4:18-19

Daredevil paints arch-villain, and Murdock’s arch-rival, Wilson Fisk, as the embodiment of the ‘ill intent’ in the parable of the Good Samaritan, while Luke Cage presents serpentine arch-villains Diamondback and Cottonmouth as personifications of the Devil (with Shades as their Screwtape-esque demon helper who ultimately seems to decide that Mariah is a better devil than both of them).

Daredevil and Luke Cage as images and imitations of Jesus

There’s an expression, the ‘Jesus Juke’ that gets used for jumping to Jesus from cultural texts where it seems tenuous, but these shows make the connection overtly. It doesn’t feel tenuous to look at these heroes and assess them against the mission and heroism of Jesus. In Cage and Murdock’s slightly different presentation of the heroic, ‘messianic,’ incarnate mission to save their people; the neighbours dwelling in the place they are called to serve; we see two elements of the real mission of the real Jesus. In Daredevil we meet the suffering servant who, in an echo of Jesus setting himself towards Jerusalem, deliberately steps in to take, and absorb, the punishment being thrown at his people. In Cage we meet the (mostly) indestructible resurrected saviour, a liberator who feels the call to free his people from the yoke of oppression, then doesn’t just absorb bullets, but turns them aside, and (mostly) crushes the head of the serpent.

Daredevil is, in a sense, the embodiment of two views of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — ‘penal substitutionary atonement’ where Jesus substitutes in to take the punishment those he saves deserve, and the exemplary view of the atonement (Christus Exemplar), where the life and death of Jesus are a moral example for his followers. Cage is almost purely a picture of the victory of Jesus; the victory he proclaims arrives with his kingdom in Luke 4 (Christus Victor).

But these heroes aren’t just Jesus figures; they’re presented as Jesus followers; imitators of the sort of Jesus they seem to follow. This is, in a sense, what separates these stories from others in the Marvel or DC universes. Daredevil’s heroic imitation of Jesus is consistent with the Catholic view of his mission and its implications for those he saves; the Catholic view of the atonement involves penal substitution, but also in the words of Pope John Paul IIacts of reparation, that continue to echo the crucifixion of Jesus: “the unceasing effort to stand beside the endless crosses on which the Son of God continues to be crucified“… this is Daredevil’s understanding of his own mission; a mission deeply informed by his Catholicism. His mission to both be the good samaritan, but also to step in and take the blows aimed at the victim the good samaritan helps. His mission matures between season 1 and 2 from samaritan to martyr. He becomes one who is prepared to lay down his life for his city in order to defeat darkness. This is what motivates Daredevil to keep heading out into the bruising darkness; such that his body is broken time and time again for the sake of those he seeks to save. Being indestructible would actually be antithetical, in some sense, to his view of heroism; it would turn him into an entirely different sort of hero, one imagines, embodying an entirely different sort of Jesus.

The sort of Jesus we see in Luke Cage

The Christus Victor view of the atonement is what drives the sort of Black Liberation Theology Cage apparently adheres to; we have hints of this both in the view of Jesus he subscribes to as he adopts the name ‘Luke Cage’ and the way he conceives of his liberating mission in Harlem. His name is derived from the reference for his favourite passage, and its depiction of a cage being removed. His imperishable resurrected body provides him with the strength and ability to bring about his vision of shalom; the peace and liberation Jesus came to bring to the poor and oppressed.

Cage’s liberation theology represents a softer form of Black Liberation Theology than that advocated by the theologian who founded the movement, James Cone, though it certainly draws from it.

“The task of Black Theology then is to analyze the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the light of oppressed black people – so they will see the gospel as inseparable from their humiliated condition, bestowing on them the necessary power to break the chains of oppression.” — James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

Cone’s theology has been deeply influential in the Liberation Theology movement, but perhaps in a way mirrored by the writers of Luke Cage refusing to make the villains just white, or just the system, modern liberation theologians have rejected some of his more radical views of the white church and how it should be treated. It is interesting that Luke Cage faces up to ‘anti-Christ’ type figures who are also black; who ultimately side with the oppressive system out of self-interest, or simply motivated by baser desires like the desire for vengeance.

“Theology is always identified with a particular community. It is either identified with those who inflict oppression or with those who are its victims. A theology of the latter is authentic Christian theology, and a theology of the former is the theology of the anti-Christ.” — James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

This makes the ‘theology’ of Cage’s friend-turned-brother-turned-nemesis, Diamondback, particularly interesting. Diamondback has a snake-like ability to twist the words of God and use them to his own ends. He is the personification of the Genesis 3 serpent (both Diamondbacks and Cottonmouths are types of snake). He is an anti-Christ in precisely the manner Cone describes, but also because he is the enemy of the Christlike figure in the narrative… And he’s the ultimate opponent of Luke Cage not just directly but in his willingness to prop up a corrupt system opposed to the oppressed people Cage has come to liberate; simply because he is hell-bent on the destruction of Cage; and the death of hope.

He’s not particularly interested in the fate of Harlem, he promises Mariah Dillard that he’ll disappear when Cage is finished, but it turns out that Dillard isn’t really interested in a renaissance for Harlem, not in any meaningful sense. She is interested in being in control of Harlem and its citizens. She wants to be its oppressor — another anti-christ — and we see this in her decision to join the existing oppressors and to arm them with Cage-destroying weaponry; carrying the aptly named ‘Judas’ bullets.

But Cage cannot be killed so easily. Cage won’t let the oppressors win. Cage is not afraid of Death, and not even a Judas can ultimately get rid of him. In Liberation Theology generally, but Cone’s Black Liberation Theology specifically, the resurrection is not just a conceptual thing but a paradigm for how to live when staring at oppression in the present; and this, perhaps, serves as something of a description for Luke Cage’s modus operandi.

“[Jesus’] resurrection is the disclosure that God is not defeated by oppression but transforms it into the possibility of freedom. For men and women who live in an oppressive society this means they do not have to behave as if death were the ultimate. God in Christ has set us free from death, and we can now live without fear of social ostracism, economic insecurity, or political tyranny.”— James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation

There are no doubt some problems with Black Liberation Theology, especially as Cone conceived of it many years ago, but this is, in a sense, a description of Luke Cage. Freed from death and physical pain, after his resurrection, Luke Cage is able to tackle oppression in Harlem fearlessly. Mostly. His mission isn’t resolved after one season, nor is the job complete, but he is the liberator; and ultimately there’s little doubt that he’ll be the victor (that’s not even a spoiler).

There’s obviously a lot more going on in the series — figures like Shades and Mariah Dillard are complex personifications of different sorts of evil, temptation, and the cyclical, self-perpetuating nature of brokenness and sin. Diamondback is both Satan and Cain, and Cage both Jesus and Abel — which gets a little confusing, though it works quite nicely if you think of both Abel and Jesus as descendants of Adam who don’t act like sinful Adam, and Cage and Diamondback as brothers who both have to decide how they’re shaped by the sin of their forebear.

There’s also something interesting about the character Claire Temple, the Night Nurse, who features in all three Netflix/Marvel franchises as a willing helper of the hero who doesn’t just patch them up when they fall, but pushes them towards their divine calling. If Cage and Daredevil are different visions of Jesus, Claire Temple is their ‘paraclete,’ their Holy Spirit, who keeps them focused on the mission and picks them up when they fall, she’s also a voice who calls other characters to buy into the ‘messianic’ vision of the hero. There’s an interesting contrast that seems to suggest that Claire is more bought into Cage’s ability to save, the victor model, than the suffering servant model of heroism; not simply evident in her romantic entanglement with Cage being far deeper than her involvement with Murdock, but because where she keeps pushing Cage towards the fight, she tries to convince Murdock, at one point, to abandon it lest it cost him those he is trying to save.

“Maybe you need to start thinking about climbing down from that cross of yours and spending some time with us normal people for a change…” — Claire Temple to Daredevil, Daredevil, Season 2

It’s Claire who calls our heroes to stay on mission and to keep their feet firmly planted amongst those they’ve come to save; to find the happy medium and avoid the temptation that threatens to derail their messianic calling. This is another fundamental similarity and difference between Cage and Daredevil. Cage’s temptation is always to disconnect from the people at the heart of his mission by leaving the fight, though he is indestructible, to not take up the call to heroism, so Claire calls him back to it; Daredevil’s temptation is to so embrace the fight, though he is destructible, such that he disconnects from his people who have to witness his destruction and is destroyed without truly being able to save them; Claire calls him back to these people he’s meant to be fighting for, to keep him from losing himself and becoming the darkness he fights.

Luke Cage and Daredevil live in, and fight for, the same city; coming from neighbourhoods separated physically by Central Park, and both confronted by devils and demons who they’ll continue to battle in future seasons (ultimately they’ll join forces in The Defenders); they’re both living in a world scarred by the sort of ‘heroism’ behind ‘the incident’ (the destruction of New York as the Avengers saved the planet). They’re both counter-examples to the sort of heroes who are detached from the suburban reality of life; the ‘hero from above’ — and in this there’s an implicit criticism of the type of leaders in our world who want to be the saviour without any connection to the cost of salvation; both Daredevil and Cage show that true heroism requires skin (even bulletproof) skin in the game; that it requires going head to head with darkness and seeking to bring light, and in this they’re commendable examples.

Why Jesus is still better than Daredevil and Luke Cage

I love these series; I get suckered in to both the binge watching “I must finish this series in less than a week” and the overthinking “I must write thousands of words about this” parts of the experience. I love the visions of heroism on offer here and the rich exploration of different traditions of Christianity they supply in order to help people think about living heroically in the modern world. As viewers we’re not really called to pick a favourite between Cage and Daredevil, but to appreciate both, and I think that is a valuable exercise for us Christians.

We get the best version of Jesus from these two series; these two heroes; if we combine them. 

So often our vision of the cross has been deeply framed by our own circumstances — this is true of the rampant individualism of the Protestant church (which tends to make penal substitution — the salvation of the individual — the core part of the Gospel), it’s true of the minds behind the Black Liberation Theology movement whose first hand experience of systemic oppression drives their reading of the Gospel, and it’s true of Catholicism where our morality, or Christlikeness (especially as it reflects the cross), is part of what saves us.

These two series have served us well by presenting us with multiple visions of heroism reflecting on Jesus, visions of heroism linked in the same world, ultimately featuring heroes who’re on the same team, and guided by the same voice (Temple). We’re presented with an interesting opportunity to consider that our relatively narrow and culturally shaped views of what’s happening at the Cross might indeed be too simplistic, and as a result might distort what’s actually going on.

The good news is that Jesus, the incarnate saviour, is a bit like the visions of heroism put forward by Marvel in both Daredevil and Luke Cage. The better news is that he’s a complete hero, while these visions offer different facets of heroism and show different aspects of his mission that come together to present a much more compelling picture for those of us who aren’t heroes. We are, in fact, villains by nature; people who too easily give in to temptation or seek to control our world.

In seeing both the strengths, and limitations, of these heroes built on one or two particular views of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus from different traditions, we’re invited to expand our picture of his heroism. Jesus is a suffering servant who took our punishment for us; the cost of sin is death and his death paid our debt and this heroism does save people. He’s also a moral exemplar both in his life and in his death and resurrection; he does call us to take up our cross and follow him. He knows the pain and suffering of the broken world and does not stand apart from it. Daredevil is like Jesus. Jesus also knows that we’re not, on our own, worthy of saving, and that we don’t take up our cross or act as ‘saviours’ on our own steam; that we’re all Fisks and Diamonbacks at heart, wanting to kill heroes who threaten to get in our way, and yet he lays down his life for us, and in this his heroism is greater than Daredevil’s, and Cage’s because he teaches us to love our enemies. This is part of the call to take up our cross, not to destroy our enemies but to lay down our lives for them…  our crosses don’t save us, or others, and Jesus isn’t killed over and over again ad nauseam; we’re not called to make acts of reparation for he has made the ultimate heroic act.

Jesus is also victor and king (Christus Rex); he did come to bring peace, and will return to bring the sort of shalom that liberation theology seeks now (we should, as people following him, stand against oppression here and now too). But to limit that peace to human fault-lines like the white/black, good/evil, oppressor/oppressed fault lines is to see the fruit and miss the tree. Yes; God is fundamentally against oppression, but it’s also true that given the opportunity all of us are fundamentally oppressors, and the real freedom and peace Jesus came to bring was to bring us freedom from the bondage of sin and peace with God. It’s that freedom and that peace that’ll ultimately stop us enslaving and objectifying our fellow humans. Yes; we are called to live life now as though we have been raised with Christ, as people of his kingdom who desire liberation for all people, but the ultimate goal of this liberation can’t simply be social, economic, or political; we should desire that they too be liberated from death, to share with Jesus in his heroic victory over the enemies of God’s people: Satan, sin, and death.

Both Daredevil and Luke Cage show valuable glimpses of what it looks like to take up a facet of the sort of heroism we see in Jesus and imitate it for the sake of those around us.

In Daredevil we’re invited to see that really loving others requires pain and sacrifice; which is the sort of love, and the example, Jesus demonstrates at the Cross. Those of us who follow Jesus see this act as both what frees us to love others without feeling like we’re paying off our sin and earning our salvation, and also shows us what that love looks like.

In Luke Cage we’re invited to see that resurrection in an indestructible body frees us from fear; which is what happens for us because of the resurrection of Jesus, and his ultimate defeat of death and the devil. Those of us who follow Jesus believe we’re, in a sense, eternally bulletproof. So we’re free to stand up and fight against oppression for the sake of our neighbours when we see it now.

This doesn’t necessarily make Jesus true. Of course. But it does, at the very least, make him a better hero (in a better story) than Daredevil or Luke Cage, and maybe that alone should be enough reason for you to check out the stories of his heroism; the Gospels.


“It costs to be a saviour. Ask Jesus” — Cottonmouth, Luke Cage, Episode 5


Some ‘F’ Words: Footy, Fifita, Foran, Friendship and Forgiveness — what the NRL’s culture problems reveal about life together

It seems you can learn about real friendship from the most unlikely people.


Image credit: ABC News

I was pretty devastated last year when my team’s (the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles) clean-skin five-eighth, a prodigious talent, and potential future captain, Kieran Foran walked out of the club to join arch-rivals Parramatta.

There’s a long history of players switching between these clubs — usually in our favour, like the great Jamie Lyon, but this one hurt. Foran was said to be a family man, a humble and patient bloke who was widely respected by his peers and the press. He was not a boofhead. He was polite and well-spoken, not a boor. He was not like those other players who generate negative headlines for the game. Even in leaving, the headlines being generated were positive ones about him and the game. He was not, in any sense, like Andrew Fifita from the Cronulla Sharks, a gifted footballer whose career, many suggest, will be limited by the disruption he brings by bringing his larger-than-life character wherever he goes. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be saying the game needed less Kieran Foran’s and more Andrew Fifitas, I’d have laughed in your face.

A year later and things have unravelled somewhat for Kieran Foran. His reputation is in tatters; his new club tore up his contract because it turns out he’s not the messiah, nor even the golden haired child they thought he’d be. And it is clear he’s battling a whole range of demons. Mental illness is a terrible scourge for those experiencing it. It has reportedly been a tough year for Foran and for those who love him. I’m not at all writing this to judge him, or to comment on his decisions; life for him, and for many others, is complicated, and he’s made some mistakes and done some stupid things; and it’d be amazing if he were able to pull his life together, or have it pieced back together for him. Nobody is unredeemable. As I write about this year and reflect on his fall, I’m praying for him. Personally I reckon it’d be especially good for him if he found Jesus in all this; it seems Jesus isn’t far from an NRL field most weekends.

What is clear is that Foran needs new friends. It’s become apparent that one of his closest friends is at the heart of match-fixing allegations surrounding the NRL; specifically surrounding games involving Foran. This friend is an undesirable sort of character who has brought Foran’s reputation into question by doing such stupid things as trying to deposit gambling winnings into Foran’s account. This undesirable friend has mixed in circles with NRL players for years to get access to inside information; keeping them close using methods as morally questionable as providing free sex for NRL players and jockeys in a brothel he ran in Sydney. This undesirable claimed in a bizarro press conference this week that if it wasn’t for him, Foran wouldn’t be alive, and perhaps that’s true; but he is also cutting off his relationship with Foran so that he can pursue a return to the football field. I’m no expert, but from the outside (and from the inside perspective of Foran’s ex-partner) this undesirable has not actually been a good friend to Foran; and his undesirability has rubbed off on Foran’s reputation.

What are friends for?

Another friend of Foran’s, his god-father, Don Mackinnon is stepping in to help pick up the pieces; he’s described as a father-figure (Foran’s father lives in the U.S where he’s the CEO of Walmart), and he’s been doing what friends should do; standing with Foran and encouraging him to pick up the pieces of his life, and his career. The media love him for it because he’s doing something positive for Foran, and, for the game that makes us feel like we’re stakeholders in Foran’s life decisions; the footy. This sort of thing is apparently what friends are for. Making us better people. Friends who make us worse, or who cost us something, are to be cut-off.

Is that real friendship?

Clearly you’re not being a friend if you’re using and destroying on the person you claim to love for your own ends; as it seems is the case with Mr Undesirable; but what should a friend be doing for someone who has done the destroying themselves?

Enter Andrew Fifita.

Andrew Fifita has also had a rough year and apparently been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. He’s done some stupid stuff in the past, like badgering a referee at a junior football game, and this year has continued to do some questionable things; he, is, in some corners of the media, painted as a walking undesirable; a blight on the game.  It’s been suggested that he also needs new friends after he wore an armband bearing the letters F.K.L; apparently in support of his childhood friend ‘K.L,’ who is in jail for a coward punch killing. This friend is rightly paying for a stupid mistake that had deadly consequences. Fifita, despite all the advice he has received suggesting he do otherwise, is standing by his friend. He’s not just doing the token thing with some letters on his wrist, but has made multiple visits to his friend in prison. Apparently the authorities in both the game, and the government — the NRL’s Integrity Unit, and the New South Wales Police — don’t want our footballers consorting with this sort of character. This friendship doesn’t appear to gain him anything; in fact, Fifita seems to know that it costs him. If there’s one thing Fifita does seem to be, it’s loyal to his childhood friends; that was his explanation for running across the field to join a fight in State of Origin this year that saw him head to the sin bin. Sure. He’s done some dumb stuff. But there’s some sort of virtue there in the background. And it’s there when it comes to his costly support of his undesirable friend. People are worried that continuing to support his friend; visiting him in jail and wearing the letters on his wrist, brings both Fifita and the game into disrepute. Fifita has been pilloried from pillar to post by the media and the game’s hierarchy for daring to stand by his undesirable friend.

There’s been lots of speculation about what the “F” on his wristband stood for; and a widespread belief that he was calling for his friend to be freed; which would be insensitive for the family of the victim, and would fly in the face of campaigns against alcohol fuelled violence. A bunch of former-players-turned-media-pundits and NRL CEO Todd Greenberg piled in on Fifita; rightly concerned about the family of K.L’s victim. Greenberg told the media:

“Players are generally free to support any person or cause they like. But in circumstances such as these, they cannot use our game as a platform to do that.

We understand players have a life outside their club and the game and that may include mixing with people who have gone down the wrong path in life. But players must ensure they do not engage in any activity which damages our game… Arm guards can often be used for messages of support for family, sick children and other worthy causes and we would prefer not to get in the way of that.”

But it seems the F stands for the thing at the heart of real friendship. Perhaps this is a worthy cause. Perhaps it teaches us something true about friendship. A lesson the NRL might need if Foran’s undesirable friend has connections, as it seems, that run wide, not just deeply into the life of the Foran family.

It seems Fifita might actually be a guy the NRL (and its public) could learn from (though he’s still a boof-head and this is quite a specific thing to learn). It seems Fifita understands that real friendship crosses the boundaries of desirability at one’s personal cost; that real friendship isn’t just for fair weather, or for your own benefit. It seems he knows that the way to cross the boundary is via the toughest virtues of all.

First, a few weeks back, Fifita made it clear that he wasn’t downplaying the cost K.L’s actions had for the Kelly family (and they have been incredibly costly) — or calling for K.L, Kieran Loveridge, to be freed. He is simply humanising Kieran in a world that wants to use shame and guilt to dehumanise people when they make mistakes. One of the quickest ways to dehumanise someone is to cut them off from friendships and relationships. We’re wired to need relationships. And Fifita seems to get this… he said:

“… I think about the Kelly family when I think about Kieran. My support for Kieran is there because he is sitting without a glimmer of hope and I want to give him some hope. There are very few people who are going to support him and my bond with him runs deep.

“But to say that I think he should be free is just so wrong. It upsets me that people would think that. He has to do his time because he did the wrong thing, but I can’t ignore a bloke who grew up with me as family.”

Then, yesterday’s Danny Weidler column in the Sun Herald contained this little bit of info (which is consistent with what Fifita has suggested since the scandal broke, not just a convenient excuse to make up after the fact).

“What is also of interest is the “F” in the infamous “FKL” acronym worn by Fifita earlier this season was not “Free” or “For”. This column understands it’s “Forgive” – something Fifita wrote after two years of trying to find forgiveness for a mate who did the wrong thing.

It was something he struggled with and still does because he knows how brutal Kieran Loveridge’s act was. It is my understanding Fifita doesn’t want the world to forgive the one-punch killer. He’s not silly enough to push that down people’s throats. He wasn’t pushing it on to teammates or anyone else, it was a reminder to look for that in himself.”


Forgiveness is hard especially when the sin in question makes a person particularly undesirable. There’s a reason Jesus gets called ‘friend of sinners’ — and it’s not just that he spent time with undesirables like prostitutes and tax-collectors — it’s because his mission in life was to forgive people at his cost (the cost of his life, and death) in order to make us his friends. Just after Luke’s Gospel, where the Pharisees have been having a go at Jesus for hanging out with undesirables, Jesus says:

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.” — Luke 7:34

Just after he says this, Luke tells a story about an undesirable woman approaches him to wash his feet with expensive perfume (which she’s no doubt purchased with the money she made from her undesirable labours), the Pharisees think Jesus should cut off contact with her because she is a “sinner,” and he shows that Fifita is pretty on the money when it comes to friendship, while the NRL and the footy-loving media, might have something to learn. Jesus smashes the pharisees, while giving hope and friendship to this undesirable woman.

Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” — Luke 7:44-50

You could also easily go to the parable of the Good Samaritan here and its final question: ‘who was this [undesirable] man’s neighbour?’ — the example of Jesus is the example of extending friendship to someone, via forgiveness, at your own cost.

We can learn something Biblical from Foran’s story too; “bad company corrupts” (1 Corinthians 15:33), and that’s what happens if we take our lead from undesirables rather than seeing friendship as a costly outworking of the Gospel. The thing about the story of the Bible is that it becomes pretty clear that we’re actually all corrupted and undesirable; some of us are just better at hiding it than others, while some of us are more hypocritical than others (there’s a great irony to me that the line of pundits stepping forward to condemn Andrew Fifita includes Matthew Johns). The danger Paul is speaking about in 1 Corinthians 15 is the danger of forgetting that Jesus calls us to leave our old ways, but not our old friends, behind. We can love people without being corrupted by them; and this, too, is where Foran went wrong. Jesus managed to do this friendship thing without being corrupted — but he did it with compassion, and for people who nobody else wanted to see as human or give any sort of hope to — just like Fifita, and ultimately this will require a degree of forgiveness.

There’s something that people who want to follow Jesus and live in response to his vision of costly friendship for undesirables (us) can learn from Fifita here, inasmuch as his approach to friendship looks like Jesus’ approach to friendship. Forgiveness is hard. And yet Paul, who’d been greatly undesirable, a killer of Christians, before being forgiven, says it’s at the heart of our new life following Jesus:

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” — Colossians 3:12-14

Don’t Panic: The sky is not falling in in Victoria; it already fell and Jesus is both Lord and king

The last thing we Christians need right now is ‘think pieces’ making us afraid of our world.

Big Splash Rubber Duckie

Sometimes when my kids are playing in the bath I get their rubber ducks, hold them high above their heads, and pelt them down into the bathtub. It’s like the sky is falling in. It creates massive shock waves in the tiny bath.

The kids laugh. They rejoice. They know a falling rubber duck presents no real danger, and the splashes, which might cause temporary pain if the soap gets in their eyes, aren’t permanent and are part of the game.

Smarter people than I are deeply concerned about what’s happening in Victoria, especially those who live there like Murray Campbell and Michael Bird.

Writing for the Gospel Coalition (in a piece originally from his blog) titled Victoria Prepares to Pull the Plug on Religious Freedom, Murray Campbell says:

Schools, Churches, Synagogues, Temples, and hundreds of organisations, will be required to pass a test, demonstrating to the Government that advertised positions inherently require an employee to affirm the beliefs and practices of that institution. The tribunal will then have authority to decide what is religious and what is not, and which roles require a person to hold to the beliefs of the organisation and not; a pontifex maximus for Victoria!

Soon there will be all manner of religious organisations lining up outside a brick Government building, waiting to prove that their employees ought to be on the same page as their school or charity.

Yes, I know, all this sounds like one crazy dream built on an evening of Roquefort and Sauternes, or perhaps the plot line for a whacky comedy. But no, this is real and it is serious.

Michael Bird wrote a piece whose heading I barely comprehend, but which sounds bad, titled The Secularized Erastianism of the Daniel Andrews Government in Victoria (I do like it a lot, and think he’s right in his reading of the culture and the implications, and the systemic problems with a decision like this). I think these guys are reading what is going on well; and pointing out some troubling implications that go way beyond Christianity; but there’s potential that a whole lot of us are going to read about how bad the world is getting for Christians and respond in a totally natural and understandable way: panic.

I read these, and my first response is to want to head for the hills; to start some sort of monastic order till it all blows over or collapses, as it inevitably will, under the weight of its own over-reach.

My second response, one that I believe has better perspective to it; is not to worry, but to steel myself (and perhaps  others) to endure what’s coming…

I’m just not that concerned about Daniel Andrews, not because I don’t live in Victoria (I think they’ll permeate), but because Jesus is king and God is sovereign.

Look, I’m sure there’s an insidious anti-religion, even anti-Christian, agenda playing out in Victoria, I don’t want to downplay that. I think we should take some advice from the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy though. Always take a towel and then, more importantly: Don’t Panic!

If I was going to target religious freedom, this isn’t really the way I’d do it. It will be incredibly hard for anyone accusing the church of discrimination to prove it. This is a blunt instrument if it is setting out to damage the church. Blunt instruments hurt. Sure. And it appears we can choose to let ’em hit us, or we can choose to help ’em sharpen their swords. Which sounds like cause to sound the alert and head to panic stations.

But I’m not so sure. I’m sticking with the “Don’t Panic” option.

Firstly because the laws are dumb.

It’s so bland and will ultimately be ineffective unless employers commit themselves to a purely objective process of hiring staff; which has not been the case for any job I’ve applied for… In the same way that marriage celebrants who choose to marry only heterosexual couples will be able to say something like “I chose not to use my time for that” or “I did not think the marriage would last so exercised my discretion” or any number of things in the real world that are capable of being true and legal (I mean, I’d just say “this person didn’t seem a good fit for our organisational culture”). Plus, the employment market at the moment is more competitive than ever. People advertising employment positions are inundated with applications they never look at, let alone interview. Is it really going to be that hard just to maintain the status quo? I don’t think so.

Secondly, because we’d probably be dumb not to abide by them. Firstly, why would you do anything but hire the right person for the job anyway? Which in a Christian organisation probably will mean sharing the ethos and goals of the organisation? But there’s also a good case for hiring non-Christians some times. I’m not sure I’d bother with any of these ‘technically true’ workarounds. If your Christian culture within your organisation is strong; why wouldn’t you hire non-Christians? We use non-Christian contractors all the time to do our electrical work, and manage our printing, and all sorts of day to day operational issues.

Creek Road South Bank, where I’m the pastor, meets in a theatre at the Queensland Theatre Company. As part of our hire arrangement we’re provided two (rotating and rostered, but regular) QTC staff every week. We’ve built great relationships with these staff, one of whom interacts with all our newcomers in the course of serving them at the bar after the service, and I’ve not doubt they’ve heard the Gospel as a result.

This whole thing seems a pretty convoluted way to take down the church (but is definitely part of a broader secularist agenda, don’t hear me denying that). Honestly, we’re complaining publicly at being marginalised by some sort of worldly power. We seem so afraid; in part, we seem afraid of losing our privileged position in society.

Where is our confidence? And when we wring our hands and complain what does that say about where we put our confidence?

Are we really afraid of Daniel Andrews? Are we really, in a broader sense, afraid of gay marriage or Australian society or any worldly agenda? Is your confidence so caught up in the things of this world?

Don’t panic!

No doubt this decision in Victoria will inflict bad stuff on some people, like all kingdoms other than the kingdom of God ultimately will. It’s also terribly undemocratic in a profound sense. But what do we communicate when we’re wringing our hands, running around thinking the sky is falling. What account of the world and our place in it are we believing?

The sky has already fallen — it’s been ripped open, but that happened in our favour. It happens when Jesus is baptised, and the sky is violently torn apart.

“At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” — Mark 1:9-11


I capitalise this because we’re worried about a piddling little thing like the Premier of the State of Victoria; not exactly a global superpower. Who might, if he feels particularly capricious, be responsible for some financial pain or imprisonment. This little story doesn’t even pale in comparison with the Christian story, he’s not even an impressive villain. Murray Campbell draws comparisons between Vladimir Putin, then Julius Caesar’s campaign into Gaul, and Henry VIII proclaiming himself head of the church, with this new legislation. But Andrews is so far off the radar when it comes to real, significant, villainy that he’s almost a pantomime villain; but he doesn’t even fit that bill. He’s a democratically elected leader in a small state, in a small country, serving up piddling consequences for disobeying stupid laws. Christians were killed, and are still killed, for much smaller ‘crimes’ than failing to employ non-Christians in their state-subsidised institutions.

We’re worried the sky is falling on us when the one who is ultimately opposed to us, the real villain, has already fallen and we’re just riding out the shock waves on a boat we should know will hold us. The cross beat’s Noah’s ark as a vessel for salvation, and the judgment we’re facing is not a divine flood, but a man made wave, the sort you make when you throw your rubber duck into the bathtub for your kids. It’ll only hurt us if we think we’re puny ants or something, not people caught up in the hands of THE GOD WHO HOLDS THE ENTIRE COSMOS TOGETHER. Sorry. Getting shouty again.

See, there is a real villain. And Jesus beat him.

When Jesus sent out 70 people into the world in Luke’s Gospel and they returned amazed by what they’d done in service to him, he said:

“He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” — Luke 10:18-20

This victory is secured at the Cross. John records Jesus pointing forward to the events of the cross. The prince of this world is the real villain. And he dies.

Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. — John 12:31-33

This moment is the second time Mark records the sky tears open. Mark records God reaching down to rip the temple curtain in half from top to bottom; God won’t be containing his presence to a little room in the Temple anymore.

“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” — Mark 15:37-39

The fate of villains in this story is secure; because the sky fell. The fabric of the world as we know it was ripped as Jesus entered the world, and the ripping open of that order was completed and this recognised symbolically as the curtain tore. In Narnian terms, Aslan is on the move. Everything has changed. And we’re worried about a Premier and his minions?

Have you ever stopped to think about how much of what we read in the New Testament is written from prison? And how much of the Old Testament is written or compiled by a nation in exile, essentially a form or prison and slavery? And we’re meant to be afraid? We read think pieces online written from the comfort of the cafe or the couch. In a democratic west. Where our ministers are paid in a system, built by the government, to be generous to them, and our churches receive beneficial tax arrangements as well…

Consistently, in the Gospels and then throughout the New Testament (eg Colossians 2:13-15, 1 Peter 4, the entire book of Revelation), we’re told about what’s coming from the ‘rulers of our age’ while being pointed to this ultimate victory. The Cross.  Where the ruler of this age, Satan, via the rulers of this age (the government), thought he’d managed to kill off God; but where he actually his own death warrant.

Christians don’t need more think pieces telling us to be afraid. It’s not us who should be afraid, ultimately it’s Daniel Andrews and others who want to side with the loser of the cosmic battle and have the sky land on them. See, Jesus himself says the government will put us on trial…

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. — Matthew 10:16-20

But really, ultimately, just like at the trial of Jesus it’s not Jesus who is really on trial IN HIM ALL THINGS HOLD TOGETHER. Even at that moment. It’s the people putting him on trial. And that should give us pause; and confidence, whether we’re writing think-pieces or just living in the world.

“The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. — Matthew 10:24-28

Jesus has already won the greater battle. This sort of suffering at the hands of the authorities or worldly powers lashing out cause they’ve lost isn’t a sort of optional extra for those of us who want to follow a crucified king. It’s mandated. You’re in the bathtub. You’re not an ant. Ride out the waves. The sky has fallen. Jesus has won.

Don’t panic (unless you’re on team Daniel Andrews, or team Satan).

Rejoice and be glad.

Is marriage a created thing like math, or like music?

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” — C.S Lewis


We should stop speaking to our world as though the definition of marriage is a truth they should know like mathematical laws and start speaking as though it is a good and beautiful thing like music.

That C.S Lewis quote up the top of this post is profound. My Christianity actually shapes both the way I see and understand math and the way I see and understand music, because it shapes the way I see and understand everything. But how I see and use math and how a non-Christian sees and uses math is relatively similar; how I see music and how I use it is much more closely aligned to my faith. I sing in church, I do not do math in church (no matter how boring the sermon). There’s something different about the truth math contains and conveys and the truth music contains and conveys, and the way our faith or religious framework shapes the way we see and use them. No matter what we believe.

Christians who love natural law or revelation (and rightly) believe that creation points to God had much less to argue with when people held that nature and reason were good guides to truth. The problem is that everyone thinks nature points to their God; idolatry in its basest form is turning something from nature into God and understanding the rest of nature through the grid that creates. Just as C.S Lewis said he saw the world through the lens of his Christianity; secular Aussies do the same with their ‘religion’ or their sense of what the good human life looks like. Our worship frames how we see nature and created things like marriage. Secular worship (which expresses itself in diverse human cultures and sub-cultures built on common objects that people love like music, a sports team, an activity, or a shared sense of what a ‘good life is’) doesn’t present much of a challenge to how we see math; math doesn’t really challenge anyone’s view of the good or flourishing human life… but what we worship does shape the way we see other created things (objects and human relationships or realities) like marriage.

So here’s a question. Is marriage like math — an objectively true created thing that describes how the world works in a way that can be universally understood, or like music — a good created thing that cultures produce and enjoy subjectively based on their values? Should we expect everyone to think the same as us about marriage; is it an objectively knowable created thing, like math, or is it like music?


There are certain natural or created laws that from our finite and limited ability to observe how stuff works, seem universal. These laws — things we believe we’ve proven —are observations about nature; objective statements about how things are. We can express them as axioms or equations. These are universal.


When it comes to marriage many observers of nature who hold a belief that nature reveals something of God want to suggest a similar equation:

Marriage = 1 man + 1 woman

Often the natural argument here is that:

1 man + 1 woman + sex = a potential child.

That is natural. It is a biological equation; it seems axiomatic for those who think about the world like created things are like math not music. The only way we can change that is by artificially intervening with what is natural. That’s also long been the argument for defining marriage the way human cultures have defined it. It seems a natural fit for this objective truth. But it’s not necessarily axiomatic that marriage means that relationship; that is what is contested at the moment in our world. Because there is an alternative equation, more in the realm of music, where:

Marriage = 1 person + 1 person + love

Love is clearly a subjective thing, and much music is written trying to evoke and express that feeling. And this isn’t so much a question of how marriage should ultimately be viewed; but how it is in societies where people worship more than one god or different created things. It might have been enough to argue for marriage as though it is like math in the world operating in the age of reason — the enlightenment era when nature and our ability to know things about nature, and we viewed the world through that grid; but now we’re in the age of feelings, and arguments from reason are largely starting to sound like nonsense to people when it comes to how we should live or what should become cultural axioms and definitions.


So do people see marriage as being like math or music?

The position we come to on whether marriage is a universal truth or law that people will definitively see in the same universal way regardless of what they choose to worship (like math), or a thing we shape meaning for in our cultures (like music), will shape how we speak about marriage in our world. Do we speak of it like math, or like music?

Lots of Christian arguments I read in favour of the secular state defining marriage the way God defines it are built on the basis that it is a universal created good; a moral law written into the fabric of our humanity, much like math is written into the fabric of the cosmos.

But I don’t think it’s that simple, I think it is more like music: an imaginative shared act of creation where we act in concert with God’s design in a way that reflects who we are and what we believe about the world we live in.

We all — everyone, not just Christians — approach marriage as a ‘created’ thing; a part of nature, and we all approach created things through the ever-changing grid created by our worship. When we worship in such a way that we, or our cultures, become creators of meaning, and we create that meaning as we interact with created things. So modern secular Aussies believe we can even redefine the nature or purpose of created things (like marriage, or family, or human life) to fit our view of how the world works, or how we work best in the world. That’s why the definition of marriage is now contested; our culture keeps changing its common objects of worship and so re-ordering our loves and re-examining the way we interact with ‘nature’…

Mathematical truths operate at the objective level. We argue for them using proofs and logic and reason. The aim of discussions about these laws is to ‘prove’ something using a way of viewing and understanding the world that all people who know about math seem to share. The implications from our proving of things are clear axiomatic description of nature; the way things are. Natural law (for the ‘enlightened’ rationalist). Natural revelation (for the Christian).

Math is a pure way to get to the heart of how stuff works. To do math we employ logic and reason to describe the relationships underpinning everything in the cosmos; from the relationship between atoms to the relationship between planets. We can, using numbers, express, model, and predict the way these parts of creation will interact. Math describes the world. It has been described by some as the language of God; and there is something about the intricate order and design of the cosmos that it reveals; and its unchanging nature too; that says something about the nature and character of God… But not everyone sees math in these ways, and you don’t have to in order to believe true things about math or about the way different bodies interact in the world.

What we do with math, or the truths about the universe we extrapolate from math will vary based on what we worship, we may choose to worship math itself (or our own logic and reason), because of its explanatory power, and a very strange form of unnatural worship may even convince us that 2+2=5. But mathematical truths are natural and we can establish them, and see them in operation across human cultures towards good ends like commerce, agriculture and engineering. We harness math, but we don’t make it. It originates in nature itself and in the nature of God.

Music, at its heart, is the application of mathematical principles to sound. It is the ordering of mathematical truths to create beauty and is, by the nature of our different ears and cultural practices a subjective thing that has the potential to mean (and so reveal) different things to different people in a profoundly different way to math. Unless we’re recording the sounds of nature — like birdsongs or running a record needle over the cross section of a tree so that its rings form some sort of melody — music is something that we create in and for a culture. Music will still reveal what we worship — and human cultures across time and space testify to its place in forming us as people and representing how we view the world through the lens of our worship. It is totally ‘natural’ but in a way that works in harmony with who we are and what we worship, not in a way that directly demonstrates who God is via ‘nature’… Its origins are both divine and human. I’m fairly sure God is a musician who sings and makes beautiful noises (because of the birdsong and the picture of the throne room and what we’re called to do with music as his worshippers), but not all music points to God and not all musicians are expressing divine truth as they play — beyond the sounds themselves that arise as a product of cause and effect; when you bang stuff together, according to the laws of math, noise happens and travels through different mediums depending on what they are (physics is just math really). It is a natural phenomena but taken and shaped, subjectively, by people based on what we worship. You can’t really reasonably argue that Bach is better than Kanye, no matter how reasonable your argument is. You make that decision based on a values system you bring to the data; their music.

Problems with seeing marriage as math (a natural law)

One of the problems I observe in the way the western church, and its leaders, argue for our vision of a good natural human life is that we argue about issues that are like music as though they are like math; and expect reason and logic to win the day. This is perhaps truest in the arguments the leaders of the institutional churches in Australia are mounting in favour of the secular government maintaining a traditional definition of marriage. The problem with natural law arguments is that once an enlightened and liberated individual knows something is a ‘natural law’ they still feel totally free to break it; it’s not an argument that convinces anyone anymore once they’ve decided that real goodness lies apart from nature.

We modern Christians are so profoundly indebted to the enlightenment and the ‘age of reason’ and the natural theology tradition championed by Aquinas and his followers, and so excited about the way natural and special revelation sing in harmony to those of us attuned to hear both, that we treat moral arguments on issues that we see as derived from creation or nature as though they are mathematical truths for us to prove. An example of this way of thinking of marriage would be to insist on the axiomatic equation for marriage described above (1 man + 1 woman) and to point out that almost all cultures everywhere have recognised that as truth. The modern secular response is ‘so what’? And we don’t answer that objection by simply restating the proof, we need to demonstrate the proof in action the way music gives life to mathematical proofs.

We Christians want to keep riding the enlightenment pony in a post-enlightenment world. We settle for mounting reasonable arguments (that are reasonable and logical and tightly line up with ‘nature’); but these arguments are implausible because the good life now is much more about music than math. Our sense of what is good is much more derived from our ‘worship,’ our different stories of the good life, and our feelings than it is from some sort of natural law that we can simply choose to walk away from. Math might be true, as true as music… but it feels cold and emotionless. It takes a certain sort of rare soul to find math beautiful in the same way we find music beautiful. You might make avant-garde music celebrating obscure mathematical equations composed by algorithms rather than humans, but that is a particular taste that not everyone will share, and because it ignores the experiential nature of music; it won’t seem beautiful to anyone who doesn’t get the math.

We’re so used to operating in a culture where the ‘music’ sounded enough like ours that we could see its goodness. We’re like a bunch of Beatniks surrounded by Beatles tribute bands, that we didn’t really feel the need to keep pointing people to the Beatles, but now we live in the age of One Direction and Autotune and Pitbull and Kanye and Bieber… suddenly the music our world is making sounds very different and it’s like we’ve turned back to the math underpinning music to point out why the people around us have got music wrong.

Even though the Beatles are objectively and subjectively better and more beautiful than Bieber (and Bach is better than the Beatles), arguing for that with a bunch of numbers won’t shift anyone, you probably can’t actually argue someone out of their love for Bieber at all (and by analogy, I’m not sure you can argue someone out of or into a particular view of marriage without inviting them to first change the lens they use to see the world).

Math makes us understand music better — there’s a reason a lot of musicians do musical theory; which ends up being a bit about math. The answer for those who like Bieber rather than the Beatles, or Bach, isn’t pure math; it’s not to outlaw all other forms of music, it’s to make better music. Perhaps we also need to realise that part of the reason people like bad music and don’t see math as important — or rather the reason people are walking away from a ‘natural law’ in favour of what appears to be a position built entirely on feelings and personal preference, is that after we walked away from God’s design he gives us the consequences of that decision; which is to believe that bad stuff is good and math only important for making stuff we can use to do stuff we want to do.

Marriage is actually like music

There’s actually a bunch of objectively real and true things underpinning the making of music. How sound works; how our ears work; the physics involved with making, and recording, noises. But it also involves humans and human creativity. And that’s true in marriage too. God might have created and defined a fundamental relationship called marriage, but marriage is always experienced as a living breathing thing involving humans and human creativity. It’s always experienced subjectively, which is part of why how marriage works changes from culture to culture even if the fundamental axiom of what marriage is largely does not and has not. Marriage as God created it is music, not math.

Marriage is a good thing God made — but like music it’s a thing created when people take up a good thing design from God and approach it with love and imagination and the desire to make something beautiful (again, why Bach is better than Bieber); and ideally it’s something that reflects the relational, loving, life-giving, sacrificial nature of God (which is perhaps why the Bible speaks of our marriages as both a reflection of the ‘us’ who make men and women as people who bear the image of God, and as a reflection of the relationship between Jesus and the church, and about our oneness with God secured by our union with Christ as the ultimate marriage that our lives as Christians should anticipate).

Marriage and how we do it and speak about it in our world — a world full of knock-off Gods with cheap knock-off versions of marriage — is an opportunity for us to make something beautiful that glorifies God. To make a joyful and compelling noise that says something to the people around us about what is good for them and to call them to something better.  Talking about marriage in our public square is not just something we can reduce to a simple ‘natural’ or ‘reasonable’ equation. Even if 2+2=4; the world is convincing itself that 5 feels like a better answer. Understanding math or the created goodness of marriage will help our marriages be better and more beautifully musical; but that doesn’t mean we should speak to the world as though marriage is math when they don’t and can’t see it the way we do because their paradigm for approaching nature is different.

The reality is that just as knowing math helps make better music; knowing that there’s a created reality to marriage helps us make better marriages; but also, people don’t really want to hear about the math underpinning the music they’re listening to, they want to experience the beauty of the music, we show the goodness of our view of marriage by having and promoting beautiful marriages within our communities, and by helping other people have more beautiful marriages when they ask. We need both the objective truth that marriage between one man and one woman is created by the real God for a good purpose, and the subjective reality that we’re able to make something beautiful in our marriages using our imaginations.

But we also need to be empathetic listeners who try to understand why people make music that looks very different to the kind we like, and the kind we know is good, because that music reflects who they are. People are going to like different music, and make different music, and when we listen to that ‘music’ carefully — when we pay attention to how people speak of the created thing they call marriage (or what they want to call marriage) — we should pretty quickly be able to see that natural (math-like) arguments aren’t going to convince anyone who doesn’t first share our assumptions about the world and the place of reason. We talk like we’re talking about math while they’re talking like they’re talking about music; and it’s actually ok to talk about feelings and what beauty and the ‘good life’ looks like.

Listening to others in our world, and also knowing the deep truth math expresses (and even marriage as math in as much as the axiom is actually an expression of how God designed things) allows us to make music that resonates with people and with creation, and so might actually change the way the people around us see the world; the real way to change how they see the world is via Jesus and the ‘new eyes’ the Spirit brings; eyes that help us see the world through ‘by our Christianity’ in the C.S Lewis way… but when it comes to marriage and how to see truth about a created thing, repeating axioms isn’t going to cut it. We need symphonies that are remarkably more compelling than Bieber or whatever mass produced music people are pumping into their ears to hypnotise themselves to the truth of whatever view of the world is hot today; not cold laws. 

The way to prove that God’s vision for marriage is better isn’t to walk up to a bunch of people listening to music to shout numbers at them, it’s to play better music. It isn’t to insist on a natural proof, but to sing a supernaturally more beautiful song and then point to the amazing and intricate natural order behind the beauty, and the real relationship that marriage testifies to.

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” — Ephesians 5:31-32

How to live as X-Men and X-Women: lessons for today’s church-in-exile from 1st century Israel and the X-Men

How are we going to respond to the Secular Juggernaut? Here are some lessons from ancient and modern examples of life as exiles.



There’s been barrel loads of digital ink spilled in the last year or so on the question of whether the church is now in exile; culturally; and how helpful this is as a category for thinking about life and our witness in the world. Stephen McAlpine wasn’t the first to get the ball rolling, the Apostles Peter and Paul probably started it all a while back, and there are plenty of characters in the early church who piled in, but there is certainly a sense that if Christendom represented some sort of return from exile, we’re entering some new era in the life of the church and our relationship with the world and its powers, and even just its people, our neighbours. McAlpine called this Exile: Stage Twoand in that pivotal post suggested we should stop thinking of ourselves as being in Athens — a marketplace of ideas where we’ll get a hearing — and start thinking of ourselves as being in Babylon — where we’ll potentially be fed to lions. I liked what he said, but felt the paradigm was a little too OT exile focused and not enough a reflection of the sort of exile being experienced by God’s people around the time Jesus arrived on the scene. At the time I suggested Rome, not Babylon, the empire that executed our Lord, but that also presented an ultimate alternative vision for human flourishing to the Gospel — one built on power, prestige, wealth, and sexual liberation — is perhaps a better paradigm for us to be thinking in.

The church-as-exiles movement has continued rolling along in the last year and a half, and there have been plenty of landmark cases both here in Australia, and elsewhere in the western world for us to both notice the seismic shift in the world we live in especially with regards to the place so-called Christian values have in our social norms and laws, and to figure out how we’re going to respond to those shifts. We’ve had Safe Schools, and a continued debate on same sex marriage; we’ve, increasingly, been told that religious freedom is the greatest human right since sliced bread and something to be upheld at all costs, and often found that voicing traditional Christian views — those still reflected in our laws — is a form of bigotry. All our grandparents and most of our parents, it seems, are actually bigots when assessed by today’s values. Somehow Christians have been standing up in the public square to be speaking in favour of a bunch of created goods like marriage and freedom without really saying much at all about the creator, or his grand story of forgiveness, redemption and victory over death in Jesus. It’s like the public square is now a bonfire where we’re burning anything that looks off-trend, and that life as exiles is mostly about trying to hold on to valuable furniture, or for certain streams of Christianity to figure out what furniture to toss on the fire in order to be included in the fun, rather than trying to douse the flames and call people to a better party.

There is, at the heart of an understanding of who we are as Christians, a fundamental disconnect between how we see and live in the world, and how our neighbours do; a difference in the kingdom we belong to and the values and virtues we pursue. Like Israel before us, we’re called out of the world, by God, to be different. We’re by nature exiles in a profound sense, not put into exile by the world but by an exodus brought about as God rescued us; this brings us a totally different view of the world. As Paul puts it:

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory…

What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. — 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, 12-14

We are Mystique: Trying to figure out how to be ‘Mutant and Proud’

Life in our rapidly changing world can feel like we’re the mutants in the world of Marvel’s X-Men, trying to figure out exactly what to do with a super-power that feels a lot like being an unwelcome freak.

Do we let the world co-opt us to its agenda? Like Wolverine, who is signed up to the Weapon X program to serve the human ’empire’?

Do we adopt Magneto’s scorched earth strategy and attempt to forcibly mutate or eradicate those who would stand against us?

Take the ‘cure’ offered by the world — like the vaccination offered in X-Men: The Last Stand so we give up our power to become just like everyone else for the sake of our comfort and theirs?

Do we withdraw and hide and wait for a time when we’ll be welcome again? Or live undercover, like Beast desires with his serum — hide our mutation but keep our power, pretend there’s nothing different about us?

Or do we follow Charles Xavier who has a vision for a world where mutants and humans co-exist? Using our difference to serve the community, even as they try to crucify us for it?

The most interesting character in the X-Men franchise isn’t one of these people advocating one response or another, but Raven/Mystique whose shape-shifting ability would allow her to comfortably choose any of these options. Ironically in one timeline she’s shot with the ‘cure’ and abandoned by Magneto cause she’s not a mutant anymore… Throughout the different storylines, but perhaps especially in the new timeline stories, she’s pulled in different directions by each of these ‘leaders’ — Professor X, Magneto, and Beast — who each love her in their own way and desire their vision of the good life for her.

It’s a bit like the church is Mystique; we have the power to look just like everybody else, to hide, or to be proudly mutant and fight, or to use our power to love and save our enemies… we just have to decide which way we go.

What does it look like for us to be proud mutants where our mutation is shaped by our new DNA, the DNA that comes from being children of God, united with Christ, and being shaped by the Holy Spirit? What does it look like to be exiles because we’re different to a world around us that doesn’t like difference?

It’s not just the world of the X-Men that might help us grapple with how to live in a shifting world, but how Israel responded not to exile in Babylon as they hoped for a return to power (as we see it in the Prophets, and in characters like Daniel), but under Roman rule, where that return had failed. There are parallels in Jewish history for each of the paths taken by the protaganists in the X-Men franchise.

Weapon-X: The ‘Hellenisers’, Pharisees, and ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join em’ Option

Under Roman rule the easiest thing for the Jewish community to do was simply to, as much as possible, act Roman. To cuddle up to the empire and, as a result, be allowed the freedom to practice their religion so long as it didn’t upset the Imperial apple cart. Tertullian, a Christian guy writing in the late 2nd century described the status as Judaism in the empire as being a religio licita; a legal religion. Judaism enjoyed a privileged place in the empire — they didn’t have to physically bow the knee to Caesar, so long as they offered prayers for the emperor and empire in the Temple. Both Tertullian, and the Gospel writers, point out that this concession was largely symbolic; it was pretty clear who really ruled, and never clearer than in the battle between Caesar and Jesus that the arrival of God’s promised king represented.

The Sadducees went a step further than the Pharisees in that the Pharisees maintained a degree of difference, proudly, from the people around them. The Sadducees, it seems, were ‘hellenised’ — they took on the cultural and physical appearance of the Graeco-Roman world they lived in so they wouldn’t stand out. They were happy to deny spiritual and supernatural concepts like the resurrection of the dead — a concept the Greek world, especially the world of Greek philosophers (and the Areopagus in Athens is an example of this) found pretty laughable, but which even the Pharisees held on to. It made sense for them to conform because they didn’t believe anything particularly distinct anyway… They just wanted to look like everyone else, so they became like everyone else.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were so keen to hold on to their privileged place in society that they threw Jesus under the bus and joined Team Caesar, the equivalent of William Stryker’s Weapon X program, where mutants fought for the empire.

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” — John 11:47-48

This came to a head at the crucifixion, where it was pretty clear they weren’t separate any more…

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seatat a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. — John 19:12-16

There’s an incredible temptation for us to do this in the church today, and plenty of people are doing just this. Going as far as the Pharisees in giving up any sense that the Lordship of Jesus requires anything other than totally bowing the knee to Caesar. Christians are told to pray for and honour those in authority and to be oriented towards living at peace, but not at the expense of citizenship in God’s kingdom (1 Timothy 2:1-2, Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 2:11-17). We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the Pharisees.

Tertullian doesn’t really want the empire to assume that Christians are a religio licita simply because we share a history with Israel, he has a different view for what life as exiles looks like that we will return to below…

 “I have already declared the Christian religion to have its foundation in the most ancient of monuments, the sacred writings of the Jews; and yet many among you well know us to be a novel sect risen up in the reign of Tiberius, and we ourselves confess the charge; and because you should not take umbrage that we shelter ourselves only under the venerable pretext of this old religion, which is tolerated among you, and because we differ from them, not only in point of age, but also in the observation of meats, festivals, circumcision, etc., nor communicate with them so much as in name, all which seems to look very odd if we are servants of the same God as the Jews” — Tertullian, Apology, XXI

He’s also not so keen to cuddle up to the empire, as we’ll see below.

Brotherhood of Mutants: The Maccabees, Zealots, and the ‘Culture Wars’ Option

Magneto: This society won’t accept us. We form our own. The humans have played their hand, now we get ready to play ours. Who’s with me?
Magneto: [to Mystique] No more hiding.
Professor Charles Xavier: [to Mystique] Go with him. It’s what you want.

Raven Darkholme: And one more thing. BEAST!
[Raven places free her hand on her chest]
Raven Darkholme: Mutant and Proud! — X-Men: First Class

Magneto’s goal is to use power — his power — to win a victory for his people; to take the ascendancy in the culture wars so that his people rule everyone else. In the first X-Men movie, Magneto wants to use a machine to turn everyone into mutants; like it or not. In others, like First Class, he simply wants to win freedom for mutants to be mutants, but he wants to do so using power. This isn’t so different from the Maccabees in the second and first centuries BC.

Before the Romans took hold of Israel there was a period when they were under the rule of the Greeks and then the Seleucid Empire. Israel was in exile, and they didn’t love it. They staged a violent revolution, led by the Maccabees family. They were largely successful in reclaiming Judea, and tried to use military force to convert people to Judaism. They cleansed the temple and looked like they had things all together; until the Romans arrived and took over about 100 years later. The zealots picked up where they left off… they were around in Jesus’ day, but rather than fighting as an organised army, they were like ninjas… they launched stealth attacks on Romans and Roman sympathisers with sharp knives. But zealotry didn’t really work… the ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ maxim proved true. 

 The equivalent these days is to act as a combatant in the culture wars; to take up your political sword (more often than not a keyboard) and attempt to use power to secure your desired outcome at the expense of those who disagree with you, rather than figuring out how to live at peace with one another. This option, if you’re successful, produces short term success but your opponent comes back at you holding a grudge, or people know what it takes to unseat you from power — they just have to use power against you. It didn’t work for the Maccabees as a long term strategy. It never works for Magneto. Plus, a pretty smart guy (Jesus) said those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

District X: Essenes/Qumran and the Benedict Option

This hasn’t happened in the X-Men movie universe yet; but in the comics, a collective of mutants form a community-apart-from-the-community called Mutant Town or District-X. A place for mutants to be proudly mutant; apart from the world. In Israel, under Roman rule (and a bit before), the Essenes formed counter-cultural communities who behaved in counter-cultural ways; there’s a good chance they authored the Dead Sea Scrolls and that they viewed the Hellenised Jews as compromisers and covenant breakers. Their communities-of-difference were designed to maintain the faith. Josephus writes pretty extensively about them… here’s a couple of quotes about their differences from the world around them:

“Whereas these men shun the pleasures as vice, they consider self-control and not succumbing to the passions virtue. And although there is among them a disdain for marriage, adopting the children of outsiders while they are still malleable enough for the lessons they regard them as family and instill in them their principles of character…

… these two things are matters of personal prerogative among them: [rendering] assistance and mercy. For helping those who are worthy, whenever they might need it, and also extending food to those who are in want are indeed left up to the individual; but in the case of the relatives, such distribution is not allowed to be done without [permission from] the managers. Of anger, just controllers; as for temper, able to contain it; of fidelity, masters; of peace, servants. And whereas everything spoken by them is more forceful than an oath, swearing itself they avoid, considering it worse than the false oath; for they declare to be already degraded one who is unworthy of belief without God.

The Essenes were basically a Jewish monastic movement. They withdrew from society — or formed a counter-society in order to not be tainted by the wider society, but also to serve it. One response to our present life-in-exile that seems to be gathering momentum is conservative pundit Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, in a sense it’s Alasdair MacIntyre’s Benedict Option in that it comes from this paragraph in After Virtue. It seems to be both a new District-X/Essenes movement based on the order started by St Benedict at the decline of the Roman Empire; a monastic movement that focused very much on virtue formation in an alternate community. MacIntyre wrote:

“What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.” — Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

This all sounds very ‘Essene’ or very ‘District-X’… Dreher is keen for Christians to take up this vision; rightly calling us to remove ourselves from being too caught up with earthly empires — not making the Pharisee/Sadducee mistake, and calling for an end to the culture wars where we’ve tried to do a Magneto/Maccabees to fight off the imperial regime of our day. There’s been quite a lot written about this stuff since Dreher first proposed it; and frankly, it’s confusing exactly how engaged or disengaged with the wider world those pushing this barrow want their communes to be. It’s like a Benedict Option can be anything along a spectrum from Amish to just being a distinctly different community within the community (namely, the church), where you’re focused on cultivating virtue by being different in practice. Very few people would want to disagree with that… But there are three things I think are worth thinking about when deciding if the Benedict Option is the way forward:

  1. Are we in pre-dark ages Rome or pre-Christian Rome?
  2. Is withdrawing actually effective, or when all the Christians turn their attention inwards does that actually hasten the decline.
  3. Is virtue formation a means to an end, an end in itself, or a fruit of a good life, such that virtues are the character produced by a life lived towards a particular telos or mission, rather than being the aim of our mission.

In X-Men terms — are mutants the best version of themselves if they go off to mutant school to participate in a bunch of skill-honing montages, or are they better off training in mutant school, while stepping out to use their powers for the sake of others (which has the effect of training and forming these mutants to an end more inline with what goodness looks like (‘mutant and proud’ maybe?).

Dreher reads the cultural landscape pretty well, I think, its just that his solutions are a bit pessimistic and his view of Christian mission and what the church is for is a little too inwards looking for my liking.

Over the past decade, especially in the struggle over same-sex marriage, some of my friends and allies among social and religious conservatives have called me a defeatist for my culture-war pessimism. I believe that pessimism today is simply realism, and that it is better for us to retreat strategically to a position that we are capable of defending. The cultural battlefield has changed far more than many of us realize…

If by “Christianity” we mean the philosophical and cultural framework setting the broad terms for engagement in American public life, Christianity is dead, and we Christians have killed it. We have allowed our children to be catechized by the culture and have produced an anesthetizing religion suited for little more than being a chaplaincy to the liberal individualistic order… This is not to endorse quietism. I don’t think we can afford to be disengaged from public and political life. But it is to advocate for a realistic understanding of where we stand as Christians in twenty-first-­century America. Our prospects for living and acting in the public square as Christians are now quite limited. — Rod Dreher, Christian and Countercultural

I’m a little more hopeful than Dreher that if we were to get our house in order, in the church, we might ‘catechise the culture’ via the Gospel, rather than being losers in the worship wars. I think we can revive Christianity first by returning to the Gospel, not by withdrawing from the world then returning to the Gospel in isolation. In Dreher’s Benedict Option the benefit is primarily for the church and the Christian — with a long term potential benefit for those seeking to come in to these communities for some sort of ‘protection’ from the new dark ages.

These communities offer a way for believers to thicken Christian culture in a time of moral revolution and religious dissolution. And if they’re successful over time, they may impart their wisdom to outsiders who crave light in the postmodern darkness. — Rod Dreher, Benedict Option

“Benedict did not leave the world for the sake of saving it. He left the world for the sake of saving his own soul. He knew that to put himself in a position where he was open to the Holy Spirit required living life in a certain way, in community. Hence the monastery. The monastic calling is a special one given to a relative few men and women, but the principle that believers need a community, a culture, and a way of life to keep themselves open to the formative (re-formative) power of divine grace is true for all of us.” — Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option Still Stands

For most of us, though, that degree of commitment isn’t possible, even if it were desirable. Our Benedict Option will express itself within institutions—churches, schools, para-church organizations, and so forth—whose purpose is to keep orthodox Christianity alive in the hearts and minds of believers living as exiles in an ever more hostile culture… We need to teach ourselves and our children to desire Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, as preserved within our traditions, and to make that pursuit the focus of our moral imagination. This is not a lofty ideal, but a matter of intense practical urgency. We do not have time to waste in building our little platoons… There are no safe places to raise Christian kids in America other than the countercultural places we make for ourselves, together. If we do not form our consciences and the consciences of our children to be distinctly Christian and distinctly countercultural, even if that means some degree of intentional separation from the mainstream, we are not going to survive. — Rod Dreher, Christian and Countercultural

Dreher also published a sort of FAQ guide to the Benedict Option if you want to get your head around it a bit more. If Carl Trueman is your cup of tea (he’s often not mine), he’s written a few pieces worth considering about the Benedict Option including: The Rise of The Anti-Culture, and Eating Locusts Will Be Benedict OptionalIf you really want to understand the Benedict Option you could do much worse than read this piece by Matthew Loftus. For those following the Worship Wars series of posts here, there’s also this from Dreher which quotes the reasons James K.A Smith doesn’t like the Benedict Option. Also, for what it’s worth, Stanley Hauerwas says MacIntyre regrets the Benedict line as he puts forward what I think is a better alternative. Another thing by Greg Forster points out that:

“The Benedict Option” is a phrase now so thoroughly jawed over that it effectively means whatever you want it to mean. No amount of effort by Rod Dreher to clarify what he means by it can prevent everyone else who is looking for something new from using it to mean whatever they happen to be fascinated by…The overarching problem, however, is the Benedict Option’s failure to love the unholy world. The holiness of the church has crowded out its divine mission.” — Greg Forster, The Benedict Option As Culture War

The thing about the Mutant Town project, and the real, historic, Essenes community, is that neither of them had a lasting impact on their world and neither of them had the desired effect on the people leaving the world. They were failures. Unless the preservation of scrolls in some jars is a success. There’s probably even more concern for us as Christians if we take Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 9-11:1 seriously — it seems that imitating Christ is about the desire to win some to the Gospel by becoming like them rather than them becoming like us, and that the key to holding on to the Gospel is actually holding out the Gospel. It may be that being Christlike and on mission with the Gospel (and thus habitually living out the Gospel story) is what will cultivate real virtue for us, not simply withdrawing and doing a bunch of Holy sacramental, discipline type stuff.

The X-Men: The Jesus option

Raven/Mystique: You know Charles, I use to think it’s gonna be you and me against the world. But no matter how BAD the world gets, you don’t wanna be against it do you? You want to be part of it. — X-Men: First Class

Raven: Get out of my head, Charles!
Charles Xavier: Raven, please do not make us the enemy today.
Raven: Look around you, we already are!
Charles Xavier: Not all of us, Raven. All you’ve done so far is save the lives of these men. You can show them a better path.
Hank McCoy: [to Xavier] Shut her down, Charles!
Charles Xavier: I’ve been trying to control you since the day we met, and look where that’s got us… everything that happens now is in your hands. I have faith in you, Raven. — X-Men: Days of Future Past

But what if we’re not in the Dark Ages at the end of the empire? What if we’re in first and second century Rome?


What if District-X was as bad an idea as the Brotherhood of Mutants and Professor-X’s X-Men actually have it right? What if the key to virtue formation, the church’s survival, and the salvation of the world actually lies in us fighting to save it by lying down our lives for the sake of others? Living as exiles but seeking the welfare of our place? Our enemies even? Imitating Christ. What if our job is to show a better path as part of the world; fully engaged, fully on mission to keep people alive.

What if Professor-X is basically Jesus (and Cerebro something like a mechanical version of the Holy Spirit)? And what if we’re formed as virtuous people by living out the mission given to us by Jesus for the sake of the hostile world that crucified him. How do these very clear instructions end up with the Benedict Option rather than with a team, or community, of people on mission?

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? — Matthew 16:24-26

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:19-20

How does the Benedict Option (or any of the others) represent a life that extends Jesus’ mission into the world, where he became ‘God with us’ — present and engaged with a hostile culture; light coming into a darkness he knew was not going to receive him (John 1); how does it reflect this model of God’s engaged presence in the world that begins at the start of the Gospel and continues here in the Great Commission with the promise that he is with us?

What if it’s not the monastery we should be looking to for inspiration for how to handle the barbarians at the gate, but to the early church living amidst the barbarous Roman Empire which executed Jesus. Oh yeah. Christians building systems based on the halcyon days of the Roman Empire — as if the barbarians only came from outside are like those who think America or Australia were ever really Christian empires, who are more shocked than the rest at the secular juggernaut because it represents a greater loss of territory and influence. The world is yet to see a political empire built with Jesus as king. The church is yet to be anything other than a community of exiles; an alternate polis.

What if we should assume Christendom ended so long ago that what we’re dealing with isn’t a world about to enter the darkness, but a world that has been dark for so long it forgets what life really looks like? What if we’re not the church in Benedict’s day, but in the time where Jewish exiles were running around getting in to bed with the Romans, stabbing them with knives, or setting up communes only for Jesus, and then his church, to emerge as a real alternative kingdom so thoroughly engaged with life in the empire, from the margins, that the values of the Empire eventually turned upside down? What if an optimistic taking up our cross is the answer; if it virtue-formation looks more like martyrdom than life in a commune? What if the hope for the empire doesn’t lie in us pulling out in the face of hostility, but pitching in.

What if instead of looking at the Benedictine monks and their practices we looked to texts like Tertullian’s Apology and the ancient Epistle to Diognetus, to see how the early church — those exiles — responded to the Empire (and how this differed from the suite of Jewish exilic models in Rome). Is the Benedict Option really going to produce the sort of Christian who so relies on the truth of the Gospel that we stand in front of the secular juggernaut and say “bring it on, the Gospel will go further if you steamroll me…” Cause that’s what Tertullian said… 

“And now, O worshipful judges, go on with your show of justice, and, believe me, you will be juster and juster still in the opinion of the people, the oftener you make them a sacrifice of Christians. Crucify, torture, condemn, grind us all to powder if you can ; your injustice is an illustrious proof of our innocence, and for the proof of this it is that God permits us to suffer; and by your late condemnation of a Christian woman to the lust of a pander, rather than the rage of a lion, you notoriously confess that such a pollution is more abhorred by a Christian than all the torments and deaths you can heap upon her. But do your worst, and rack your inventions for tortures for Christians—it is all to no purpose; you do but attract the world, and make it fall the more in love with our religion; the more you mow us down, the thicker we rise; the Christian blood you spill is like the seed you sow, it springs from the earth again, and fructifies the more.”

Is withdrawing into our own communities, ultimately for our own sake, really going to provide the sort of schooling in virtue that we need to love our enemies and lay down our lives for them? Is it going to produce communities whose engaged difference works for the good of the empire as it transforms one life at a time until our momentum is irresistible? Until the Gospel becomes a juggernaut with more momentum than the secular community trying to ram us? It has happened before, and the key wasn’t people pulling out of society that did it… it was a bunch of exiles living as citizens of a better kingdom, lives like those described in the Epistle to Diognetus an anonymous description of Christian community and beliefs from the late 2nd century:

“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.”

This doesn’t sound Benedictine to me. But it sounds powerful. It sounds like Jesus.

What if the answer isn’t withdrawal into ‘communities of virtue’ outside the mainstream but being an alternative community desperate to love the mainstream with the Gospel where our virtue is shaped by our interactions with the world such that martyrdom of some sort — the practice of self-sacrifice and rejection with our eyes fixed on the greater kingdom we belong to — is our process of being formed as virtuous people. There’ll be a certain sort of rich, thick, loving, community that makes martyrdom more plausible — if the love of the church is more compelling than the love of the world — but this sort of monastic way of life, even if still engaged, is both too negative and pessimistic about our chance to change the empire (as we did in the past) and too disconnected from the way of life we’re called to imitate. Jesus did not live in a monastery but spent his time amongst friends and sinners. The way to save our own soul, to run our race and hold on to the Gospel is to hold the Gospel out to others. To love others at cost. To be prepared to lay down our lives to do so. The way to be virtuous is to be on mission, to be the church, as Hauerwas puts it (confusingly, Dreher says he’s on board with what Hauerwas says in this interview, which is one of the reasons everyone is so confused about exactly what the Benedict Option is):

“The church doesn’t have a mission. The church is mission. Our fundamental being is based on the presumption that we are witnesses to a Christ who is known only through witnesses. To be a witness means you bear the marks of Christ so that your life gives life to others. I can’t imagine Christians who are not fundamentally in mission as constitutive of their very being – because you don’t know who Christ is except by someone else telling you who Christ is. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore it is the task of Christians to embody the joy that comes from being made part of the body of Christ. That joy should be infectious and pull other people toward it. How many of us have actually asked another person to follow Christ? In my experience, far too few.”

If you’re going to be ‘mutant and proud,’ in exile, be the X-Men. They always win. The movies tell me so.

There’s a better story that tells me that putting my pride in Jesus, for the sake of my neighbours, is a better way to win, and a better way to be an exile.

Why our Queensland committee doesn’t think withdrawing from the Marriage Act is a good idea

Next week the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia will meet, and amongst other things, decide what the denomination will do should the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act change in the next three years (this court of the church meets every three years).

The proposal to withdraw, being championed by the national Church and Nation Committee (of which I am a member, dissenting on this proposal), has received significant air time in the media, and in state Assemblies over the last two years. Earlier this year the Queensland Assembly voted unanimously to oppose this Church and Nation proposal, and put forward a series of counter-motions (an alternate proposal). You can read the recommendations our state committee (the Gospel in Society Today Committee) made to the Queensland Assembly here. Since the Queensland Assembly the Church and Nation Committee has modified its proposals to be discussed at the General Assembly of Australia moving from declaring that no minister conduct a marriage under an amended Act to withdrawing as a recognised denomination under the Act.

We summarised that paper, and tried to capture some of the spirit of the Queensland objections to the proposal in this summary document that our committee released this week. What follows is not simply my objections (though those are well documented in these 8 reasons, and 21 questions), this is the official position of our committee as circulated. Personally, my preference is that we maintain God’s definition of marriage to the point of submissive civil disobedience where we face the wrath of a potentially hostile government in order to testify to the goodness of the created order and the way one-flesh marriage between one man and one woman is a reflection of the relationship between Christ and his bride, the church. I’m also very concerned about the message withdrawing sends to our gay neighbours about how we see their position in a secular society and what sort of welcome they might find should they come into one of our church communities.

In sum, we think it’s a problem the Church and Nation proposal argues on the basis of wisdom and tradition, not citing any Biblical rationale, we believe there is a Biblical rationale for staying in marriage and upholding the Biblical definition of marriage within a changing system, and a Biblical rationale for allowing freedom for ministers to act according to their own conscience and wisdom (given that ministers can already choose not to conduct marriages, or not be celebrants under the Act), we believe that withdrawing will remove a Gospel opportunity from those churches who want to stay engaged with our community, and we believe the idea of ‘Presbyterian Marriage’ is not necessary, not sensible, not possible under our polity, and not workable for our local churches (especially those who conduct lots of marriages).

But here’s the argument in full.

The case for remaining a recognised denomination under an amended Australian Marriage Act

The Church and Nation Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Australia is recommending that the Presbyterian Church respond to any change of the Marriage Act to recognise same sex relationships as civil marriage by withdrawing from the Act, and further, by establishing our own form of marriage for the purpose of providing for couples who cannot in good conscience be married, civilly, under an amended definition of marriage.

This is a radical proposal which to date has not gained widespread support in the wider Christian community, the wider Reformed movement (in Australia and abroad), or the evangelical church (here or abroad). To date both the New South Wales and Victorian State Assemblies voted in previous years to ask the Church and Nation committee to continue investigating withdrawal. Anecdotally, many who voted this way were voting for what they believed was the European model where a couple would obtain a civil marriage certificate but then have a church ceremony. This is different to the establishment of a Presbyterian form of marriage, where the proposal is for a Presbyterian registry of marriages, with local oversight from the session, and services conducted following a marriage rite produced by the Public Worship and Devotion Committee.

The Queensland Assembly (which incorporates the Presbytery of South Australia) at its 2016 assembly voted unanimously against this proposal.

The proposal discussed at the Queensland assembly was not the final form of the GAA deliverances brought by Church and Nation (which, at that point, was not to withdraw but to declare that no Presbyterian Minister conduct marriages under the Act). The Queensland Assembly voted to bring several counter-motions to the GAA representing a position that it believed better reflected how the Bible suggests wisely navigating life in a sinful world for the sake of the Gospel as those under the Lordship of Christ, our reformed theological convictions, and our Presbyterian polity.

This document is an attempt to summarise both the case against withdrawing and the case for remaining and allowing individual ministers to determine their response to an amended Act, within the confines of our established definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. Nobody within the Presbyterian Church of Australia is, to date, suggesting we change our definition of marriage from that articulated consistently in Scripture — by Moses (Genesis 2) and Jesus (Matthew 19). 

  1. There is no Biblical argument being put forward for withdrawal

The Church and Nation Committee proposal cites no Scriptural reason for withdrawing from marriage under an amended act; its argument is based on wisdom and a particular understanding of the relationship between church and state, one not universally shared within the Reformed tradition or the Presbyterian Church of Australia.

The main argument seems to be that society is shifting, and has been for some time, and we must decide at what point we withdraw from participating in civil marriage. The argument in the Church and Nation report is that since there is no Biblical or historical reason for us to necessarily be involved in civil marriage as ‘agents’ of the state, we can withdraw whenever we want, and should withdraw at this point once the state’s definition profoundly departs from the Biblical definition.

This proposed response is not built on any explicitly Biblical rationale; no texts are cited in support of the recommendation; the argument is purely an attempt to provide a wise response to significant social change and the erosion of a human relationship established at creation. What we are being asked to decide is:

  1. That staying in a relationship with the civil magistrate, as celebrants recognised by an amended Marriage Act somehow makes us complicit agents in a wrong definition of marriage.
  2. That withdrawal is a necessary option at some point should the Marriage Act change.
  3. This is the wisest point to withdraw, not a future point where we might be compelled to act against our doctrinal position on marriage.
  4. Once we withdraw from recognised status, in order to serve those who believe that marriage under an amended act, even marriage between a man and woman conducted according to the rites of the church, is participating in evil, we should create our own form and registry of Presbyterian marriage.

None of these points are necessarily held unanimously within the Presbyterian Church as being wise or necessary conclusions in response to an amended definition of marriage in the Marriage Act. It was argued in the Queensland Assembly, in arguments that seemed to be well supported in the Assembly, that:

  1. Partnership with the government as celebrants is not an expression of agency or agreement with the broader set of relationships recognised by the Act, so long as ministers conduct marriages according to the doctrine and rites of the Presbyterian Church.
  2. That withdrawal may not be the best option, but rather gentle and respectful civil disobedience of the kind that expresses we worship the crucified Lord Jesus might be a better path to take should the magistrate attempt to force ministers to marry same-sex couples under an amended Act. The deliverances of the Queensland Gospel in Society Today Committee were explicitly amended during the Assembly to leave open this option.
  1. There is a Biblical rationale for remaining

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. — 1 Corinthians 5:10

Sexual morality matters. Marriage, as the God-ordained context for human sexual activity, is the only context for moral sexual activity (with celibacy the alternative moral sexual inactivity). While of course sexual immorality outside of the church should cause us concern, the primary context for our concern for sexual morality that follows God’s design is within the church (1 Corinthians 5:10-11). What we do as citizens of God’s kingdom who live in a fallen world with a sinful understanding of sex and marriage should both mark us out as different to the world and be a witness to God’s good design.

When Jesus is confronted with a defective view of marriage (Matthew 19) he does not tell Christians to create their own form of marriage with more Biblical practices regarding divorce, but to conduct their marriages in a way that reflects God’s design within this corrupted system. When Paul speaks about marriage in the Roman world, in 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5, he does not call Christians to create their own form of marriage, but again, to conduct their marriages as Christians.

Our concern, Biblically, should be that in the midst of broken and sinful pictures of marriage we live out a version of marriage that expresses the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality, and the goodness of his love for us so that our marriages anticipate the heavenly marriage of Christ and the church. Withdrawal in the face of sinfulness, when it is not agreed that as ministers we act as agents of the State in conducting weddings, is an unprecedented step that runs counter to the practice of sexual morality in a fallen world described in Scripture.

  1. There is a Biblical rationale for allowing Ministers to act according to conscience in wisdom issues

If there is no clear Biblical reason to withdraw (and none being put forward by the Church & Nation committee) but rather this is a question about wisdom and how to best serve the Lord Jesus as ministers of the Gospel, then there is a good Biblical principle for allowing ministers to act according to conscience on disputable matters. The Marriage Act in its current form allows celebrants to refuse to conduct any wedding for any reason, and grants ministers within recognised denominations the ability to act as celebrants only according to the rites of the church. Those wishing to not conduct marriage under an amended Act for reasons of conscience can already choose not to do so, because such freedom exists; and because disagreement exists on the assumptions put forward by the Church and Nation Committee, this is a case where the principles of Romans 14 – in relation to freedom to act according to conscience – apply.

  1. Withdrawing from civil marriage further disconnects us from the community, from a creation ordinance, and a significant gospel opportunity

Around one in ten Aussies attend church more than once a month; nine in ten don’t. While the Church and Nation proposal points to a decline in church marriages (or marriages by ministers) conducted for non-church members that corresponds with an overall decline, it seems an odd argument (and somewhat anecdotal) that because we have less gospel opportunities via our involvement in upholding God’s design for marriage, we should choose to have none.

Many ministers, especially in larger churches and church plants seeking to establish themselves in particular communities, report that conducting marriages for non-Christians is an opportunity to talk about the goodness of God’s design for marriage, and of the gospel, in pre-marriage counseling, an opportunity to build significant long-term pastoral relationships, and an opportunity to preach the gospel during the marriage ceremony. Marriage itself, as it reflects God’s design in Genesis 2, is a created good, and upholding, participating, modeling, and encouraging people towards this good, even within a fractured and sinful system which defines marriage more broadly than God does, is a way to love our neighbours.


  1. There are problems with the polity of this proposal

There are a number of significant polity problems with the Church & Nation Committee’s proposal

  1. Kirk Session jurisdiction over a Minister. Church & Nation’s overture has several highly problematic statements which imply that in this area the Kirk Session has jurisdiction over a minister. For example, Clause 1c uses those very words. However, these kinds of arrangements are determined on a state-by-state basis within the PCA, with PCQ for example not providing for Sessions to be able to exercise any jurisdiction or give any directions to ministers in any aspect of the ministerial functions including decisions about whom they may perform marriage services for or the specifics of how the marriage service may be conducted. The Church and Nation proposal at this point therefore appears to be incompetent. The relationship between the rights and responsibilities of the Session and those of the Minister in a matter such as the celebration of marriages is provided for in the State Codes and the GAA does not have the power to rule in this area, let alone make problematic statements such as Sessions having “jurisdiction” over ministers.
  2. The Kirk Session as a divorce court. The proposal contained in Church & Nation’s overture would give to Sessions the requirement to approve who would be able to be married and therefore who would be open for divorce. This is a potential minefield, and elders in Queensland have expressed concern that eventually our alternate system of marriage will come under fire from anti-Christian members of the community, and they, as elders, will not have the same personal, legal, and financial protection that ministers operating as employees of the church will have. In addition is the potential for already stretched sessions to be bogged down in administering and registering marriages and divorces, and worse if Session decisions are appealed to Presbyteries and Assemblies. The proposal seems particularly unworkable for larger churches within our denomination
  3. Mandating a particular form of the marriage service. Church & Nation’s overture seeks to mandate how the marriage service shall be conducted. This is unprecedented since all the GAA has done in the past rightly, has been to provide guidance as to how services should be conducted. This raises the legality of such a clause as the GAA is seeking to bind its ministers to do something outside of the formula. Whereas the GAA can give guidance in terms of worship services, nothing gives the GAA any authority to bind its ministers to form of worship service for marriage as the proposal seeks to do.
  4. Requiring ministers to act apart from their adherence to the formula. This is perhaps the most serious polity difficulty with Church & Nation’s proposal. Presbyterian ministers are required to follow the doctrinal position in the formula which requires allegiance to the confessional position on marriage. Presbyterian ministers therefore must seek to respond to a changed Marriage Act in accordance with the confessional position. However it would be quite legitimate under the formula for a minister to respond to a changed Marriage Act by continuing to marry couples who come to him for marriage provided the couple’s relationship falls within the bounds of the confessional position. Church & Nation’s proposal however would require ministers to respond to a changed Marriage Act in a particular way outside (or in addition to) their adherence to the formula, on the basis of a ‘wisdom’ judgement by the GAA. GAA simply does not have this kind of jurisdiction hence Church & Nation’s proposal is incompetent and contrary to fundamental principles of Presbyterian polity.

It should be noted that every minister and representative elder in Queensland and South Australia voted against this proposal at the Queensland Assembly. That’s a lot of ministers Church & Nation is seeking to force to act in this way.

In light of the above difficulties it would be appropriate for Commissioners to ask the GAA Moderator to rule, prior to debate, that both Deliverances 6 & 7 of the Church & Nation report plus Church & Nation’s overture are incompetent.

There are several other reasons the Queensland Gospel In Society Today (GIST) Committee, and Queensland Assembly (incorporating South Australia) believe withdrawal will not serve the interests of the gospel, our churches, or the Australian Community. You can read GIST’s Assembly Paper presented (and adopted unanimously) to the 2016 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland here:

The worship wars (3): porn as deadly (idol) worship

“And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

Last week news broke that two 12 year old boys had sexually assaulted a six year old girl in a bathroom in their school. Twice.

Just contemplate that for a moment. This is awful.

Awful. There’d be societies in the ancient world wearing sackcloth and ashes over that sort of behaviour (and others where that sort of behaviour would be a clear symptom of a huge societal problem — there are a couple of stories with echoes of this in the Bible around the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and then later in Judges).

What gets us to this point? What is it that teaches children to behave this way? If people are worshippers who build cultures on shared objects of worship (one of the implications of the first two posts in this series), if the actions of people within those cultures reveal our gods; our ultimate stories; then what are we worshipping that produces these actions?

What are we teaching our children?

No parent sets out to tell their kids to act like this, and if the model of human habits being a product of our gods and loves, not just our rational thoughts is true, telling kids not to do this won’t actually stop them; they’ll be much more shaped by what we, as a society are doing and what we’re loving.

This is awful. But it’s not the only story like it… and it’s not just kids…

Consider how far our society has progressed, such that the only service for children who perpetrate sexual assault on other children is oversubscribed; the expert in this story says two causes for this prevalence are the sexual abuse of children (who become perpetrators) and the availability of internet pornography.

Consider that the Washington Post published a piece recently that called pornography a “public health crisis” which pointed out that:

“Because so much porn is free and unfiltered on most digital devices, the average age of first viewing porn is estimated by some researchers to be 11. In the absence of a comprehensive sex-education curriculum in many schools, pornography has become de facto sex education for youth. And what are these children looking at? If you have in your mind’s eye a Playboy centerfold with a naked woman smiling in a cornfield, then think again. While “classy” lad mags like Playboy are dispensing with the soft-core nudes of yesteryear, free and widely available pornography is often violent, degrading and extreme.

In a content analysis of best-selling and most-rented porn films, researchers found that 88 percent of analyzed scenes contained physical aggression: generally spanking, gagging, choking or slapping. Verbal aggression occurred in 49 percent of the scenes, most often in the form of calling a woman “bitch” and “slut.” Men perpetrated 70 percent of the aggressive acts, while women were the targets 94 percent of the time.”

Consider this story from a parent recently that compared the ability to access the fantasy world of pornography to the mystical through-the-wardrobe land of Narnia, but showed the real world, habitual, fruits developed by the modern fantasy story.

Consider this ABC story by Collective Shout’s Melinda Tankard Reist about a published study Don’t Send Me That Pic featuring widespread interviews with Australia’s teenage girls, which (the story) features this quote:

Some girls suffer physical injury from porn-inspired sexual acts, including anal sex. The director of a domestic violence centre on the Gold Coast wrote to me a couple of years ago about the increase in porn-related injuries to girls aged 14 and up, from acts including torture:

“In the past few years we have had a huge increase in intimate partner rape of women from 14 to 80+. The biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender. With offenders not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, believing women are ‘up for it’ 24/7, ascribing to the myth that ‘no means yes and yes means anal’, oblivious to injuries caused and never ever considering consent. We have seen a huge increase in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture, drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent.”

The Australian Psychological Society estimates that adolescent boys are responsible for around 20% of rapes of adult women and between 30% and 50% of all reported sexual assaults of children. Just last week , Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs argued that online pornography is turning children into copycat sexual predators – acting out on other children what they are seeing in porn.

Note the role ‘fantasy’ — the sort of story of desire, that shapes our imaginations, loves, and actions, plays in this quote. Ask yourself what god or gods we are worshipping as a culture that produces behaviour like this.

It’s horrid.

Pornography: worship gone wrong

This is worship gone wrong. Pornography is a form of worship — an evil counter-form of worship that is claiming the hearts and habits of men and women in our world, and destroying families, and individuals.

In Christian circles, for thousands of years, churches who have sought to raise little worshippers (such is our view of how the desires that centre our humanity operate) have catechised their children; believing that teaching a child how to worship is the key to teaching a child how to live. That, say, the golden rule, works best when you have in view the life and death of the one from whose lips it came, who also called us to love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbours as we love ourselves… then modelled that with a couple of pieces of timber and some horrid spikes on an awful hill outside Jerusalem.

Worship matters. Teaching our kids how to worship matters. And our society is teaching our kids how to worship.

It’s porn doing the teaching. If you want to know what’s catechising our kids… claiming their imaginations… shaping their desires… look no further than what is streaming into their eyes via their smart phones and internet connections. And it’s not just the kids. Is it.

The Wall Street Journal ran a story this week (you may have to google this phrase to get in behind the paywall) from a Jewish Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Pamela Anderson (yes, that Pamela Anderson), calling for people to snap out of blindly pursuing satisfaction through pornography (more on their suggested solution later). It contained this observation about the current reality…

“Put another way, we are a guinea-pig generation for an experiment in mass debasement that few of us would have ever consented to, and whose full nefarious impact may not be known for years. How many families will suffer? How many marriages will implode? How many talented men will scrap their most important relationships and careers for a brief onanistic thrill? How many children will propel, warp-speed, into the dark side of adult sexuality by forced exposure to their fathers’ profanations?

The statistics already available are terrifying. According to data provided by the American Psychological Association, porn consumption rates are between 50% and 99% among men and 30% to 86% among women, with the former group often reporting less satisfactory intimate lives with their wives or girlfriends as a result of the consumption. By contrast, many female fans of pornography tend to prefer a less explicit variety, and report that it improves their sexual relationships.

We’re catechising them. Only it’s not the story of the Gospel that’s shaping them. It’s the story of cheap pornography; which leads us to view one another as meat puppets for our own personal sexual gratification.

Pornography is worship.

False worship. But worship.

The god of uninhibited sexual pleasure isn’t a new God — there’s plenty in the Old and New Testaments about sex and idolatry (and the idolatry of sex)… but if you’re looking for an enemy in the war for people’s worship — their loves — and looking for a demonstration of the truth that we are worshippers whose lives are profoundly shaped by our loves and habits, then pornography is it.

Pornography is worship.

Awful. Habit shaping, story changing, insidious, idolatrous, deadly, worship. And it is powerful. It offers a powerfully corrupt vision of the ‘good life’ that many buy into; that the good life is an orgasm brought about no matter the cost. The cheaper for you, and the more expensive for someone else the better. What an awful story to habitually participate yourself into believing.

It’s not old hymns or modern praise songs that are the enemy in the worship wars; it’s not whether we partake in the sacraments daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or at all, that we should be putting our energy into when it comes to deciding who and how we worship. It’s insidious gods like the idols behind porn — the worship of one’s own sexual gratification and the pursuit of an orgasm as though that’s our fundamental telos, be it by ourselves in darkness or shame; or in the relationships we destroy in the pursuit of the stories we see played out in pixels. Porn kills. It’s worship. And it so perfectly fits the paradigm described in the first two posts of this series. That we’re worshippers. And what we worship shapes us as we participate in the ‘liturgies’ of whatever ultimate love story we’re living in. Porn offers a terrible ultimate love story, and it’s terribly destructive.

The war for your worship  involves your heart, your imagination, and your habits: porn attempts to claim all three

So far in this little series I’ve argued that we are, by nature, worshipping beings; that we bear the image of the object of our worship, and that seeing the worship wars as a civil war — a conflict within the church about how we gather (and the style of music we sing), profoundly misunderstands the real enemy and what’s really at stake in the war that’s raging for who and how all people worship. In this post I’ll explore what I think the major strength of James K.A Smith’s work in his three recent books on this stuff is for those wanting to engage in the worship war and fight on the good side, not the evil side, in the next I’ll make some suggestions about where I think Smith’s answer to his diagnosis goes somewhere I wouldn’t (especially because of a slight difference in what I think ‘worship’ is, and how it relates to Sunday gatherings of Christians).

Smith suggests that as worshipping creatures we are liturgical creatures; and by this he means we’re actually more shaped by our practices than we realise. Our actions aren’t just things that flow out of our beliefs and loves, but shape them. Liturgy, our habits, have the capacity to both form and deform us; to make us more like Jesus, or make us more like our idols.

Porn is worship; and it deforms us. It takes us away from being the people we were made to be, and from worshipping the God we were made to worship. We see this because it leads to destruction; not love.

This insight has a nice little overlap with the discipline of media ecology and a famous maxim about media practices and tools: “we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us”… Introduce a new piece of technology to an environment, a technology that changes our habits, and not only will we potentially do more with that tool, it will change the way we do things and so change us. Think about someone whose job is to get rid of a concrete slab. A sledgehammer is effective and gives you big arm muscles, a jackhammer is effective and gives you a tough stomach, a remote controlled piece of high powered digging machinery is super effective and you only have to use your thumbs. Holediggers over the ages look very different. We’re shaped by our habits. Now picture the hole digging thing as ‘communicating information’ and think about the changes from pen and ink, to typewriter, to printing press, to internet… This isn’t just true of hole digging and communication — our lives and identities, our loves, who we are and the stories we tell ourselves are profoundly shaped by our habits. What we do doesn’t just reflect who we are; it shapes who we are. We cultivate the type of person we want to become based on our image of the good human life, which is based, in turn, upon the stories we tell ourselves. As Smith puts it:

Liturgies work affectively and aesthetically—they grab hold of our guts through the power of image, story, and metaphor. That’s why the most powerful liturgies are attuned to our embodiment; they speak to our senses; they get under our skin. The way to the heart is through the body, you could say.

“Liturgy,” as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for. They carry within them a kind of ultimate orientation. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

Porn makes for terrible, deadly, effective liturgy. It is powerfully wired to do exactly what Smith says liturgy does; but with horrible and destructive results. It tells a terrible story about our bodies, our sexuality, our relationships, our telos, and our humanity. The stakes are high.  This is about who you are. And who we are as a society. That’s why it’s legitimate for us to draw causal links between our practices, the virtues they demonstrate to our kids, and the way our kids then behave. If kids are sexually assaulting other kids in the playground there’s something very wrong with how we adults are conscripting their imaginations, their love and their worship. We’re losing the war, as a culture and as the church. Here’s perhaps the tightest summary about the way Smith calls us to observe and participate in the world (and to understand ourselves as participants).

If you are what you love, and your ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion in practices and cultural rituals, then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life. In other words, this contest of cultural practices is a competition for your heart—the center of the human person designed for God, as Augustine reminded us. More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do—and what those practices do to you…

We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate…

Our idolatries, then, are more liturgical than theological. Our most alluring idols are less intellectual inventions and more affective projections—they are the fruit of disordered wants, not just misunderstanding or ignorance. Instead of being on guard for false teachings and analyzing culture in order to sift out the distorting messages, we need to recognize that there are rival liturgies everywhere. — You Are What You Love, James K.A Smith

When we believe the story porn tells us, and reinforce it by our addicted, habitual, practices, it kills us. It rewires our brains, literally, it corrupts our imaginations and so damages our relationships (and the imagination and relationships of our children), it changes our understanding of the purpose of our existence as we’re captured and addicted (chemically) to a particular sort of stimulus that functions on the law of diminishing returns so that we always want more, more twisted, more extreme, and in capturing us like this it does what David Foster Wallace, and the writers of the Old Testament, and Paul in Romans 1, and so God, warn us it will do, as an idol, it eats us alive. Till we’re a shell of the image we were meant to be. And we die.

In Romans 1, Paul says this sort of thing is exactly what we should expect when we replace worshipping the God who made us with the gods we make from good things he made. You worship sex, and pursue orgasm with every fiber of your being via whatever object necessary — including porn — and it’s going to end up messing you up. And messing up your view of other people; whether you love them or use them. What is pornography if not the desires of our hearts being captured by images made (by the power of airbrushing, cosmetic surgery, and photoshop) to look like a mortal human being

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:22-25

The end result of this false worship isn’t just the messy consequences now — which Paul says God gives us (perhaps to teach us a lesson) — but death. False worship all leads to one place. It leads to destructive and deadly relationships with each other (note the testimony of girls in our schools and those awful news stories), and it leads to death. Only that doesn’t stop us, such is the lure of our idols and the power of liturgy, even bad liturgy, to claim our hearts and imaginations. Paul specifically mentions both the desires of our hearts and our depraved minds in this description of the human condition.

“Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” — Romans 1:32

How do we fix this? How do you ‘fight the new drug’ as one anti-porn platform calls us to do, if we’re natural born worshippers?

Three ways to change your worship (and maybe kick the porn habit)

1. The Pamela Anderson solution – worship yourself in different ways (bad)

The Anderson/Boteach story in the Wall Street Journal that I quoted way back at the top does a great job of highlighting the insidious, pervasive, and perverted impact that pornography is having on the lives of individuals, families, and thus our culture. But it offers a terrible and ultimately doomed solution — especially if we are worshippers and what we worship determines our fate. It’s no good just replacing one form of worship of self with another — say, the worship of our sexual pleasure, freedom, and the liturgy of pursuing orgasm, with the worship of our healthy self-autonomy, discipline, and the liturgy of pursuing self-mastery. As the narrator (or Tyler Durden) in the movie Fight Club so eloquently put it: “self improvement is masturbation”…

Here’s the Anderson/Boteach solution:

“The ubiquity of porn is an outgrowth of the sexual revolution that began a half-century ago and which, with gender rights and freedoms now having been established, has arguably run its course. Now is the time for an epochal shift in our private and public lives. Call it a “sensual revolution.”

The sensual revolution would replace pornography with eroticism—the alloying of sex with love, of physicality with personality, of the body’s mechanics with imagination, of orgasmic release with binding relationships. In an age where public disapproval is no longer an obstacle to personal disgrace, we must turn instead to the appeal of self-interest.

Simply put, we must educate ourselves and our children to understand that porn is for losers—a boring, wasteful and dead-end outlet for people too lazy to reap the ample rewards of healthy sexuality.”

If everything in this series so far is legit, or close to being right, this will not work. This is a call to do what is actually best for yourself by educating yourself about harm.

It does not replace the story that gets us to where we are. It relies on the understanding of the human being as a brain on a stick who will think themselves to better solutions. Thinking alone won’t combat the sort of chemical addiction our brains develop to release-via-orgasm attached to the fantasy world of pornography. We need better worship; including better liturgy; built on better loves; and the love at the centre of this solution is the same love that gets us to porn. The love of self, and the love of sex. It’s just the 2.0 version of the same idol. But it does seem better, so if you’re going to do anything and you don’t buy the whole Christian thing but have read this far… this is a start. And the second way might work too…

2. The David Foster Wallace/Fight The New Drug solution — worship others in sacrificial ways (better, but still theologically deadly)

David Foster Wallace’s response to observing that everybody worships and to noticing the destructive ‘eat you alive’ power of worshipping the wrong stuff, was to call us to question our default self-seeking settings. To change the story by paying attention to the world outside ourselves and leaving the isolation of ruling our “tiny skull-sized kingdoms” where we think of ourselves “alone at the centre of all creation” in order to participate more fully in reality; a shared, corporate, reality filled with other people who matter. His sort of observation is what drives the sort of altruistic response to the pornofication of our world that we see championed by organisations like Fight the New Drug and Collective Shout, where you don’t have to be a Christian to sign up; you just have to recognise the harm that a self-centred view of the world — self-worship — creates.

This way of fighting in the worship wars against pornography is a call to worship a less destructive, but perhaps no more transcendent/out of this world god. It still leaves you with a ‘created thing’ as a God, just not yourself. And it provides you with a new story, and perhaps a new set of liturgies based not just on self-discipline but self-sacrifice, and discipline oriented towards not harming others in your habits.

Here’s perhaps my favourite part of This Is Water; paired with the Gospel story of the self-giving king who connects us to the infinite thing we’ve lost, the call to petty little self-sacrifices is incredibly powerful, and oh so close to being a brilliant liturgical framework. Practice this self-sacrifice until it’s your new default.

But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

This sort of approach — this fight against the default — is to take up the other half of the Fight Club narrator’s mantra: “self-improvement is masturbation, self-destruction is real change“— it’s to die to yourself and your desires in order to give some sort of life to others. So Fight the New Drug provides a tool kit for doing just this — tools for embracing self-discipline, a change of habits, and a new story (and a new hashtag, because #pornkillslove). It wants you to get the facts but it also wants you to think about your loves and your habits so that you can fight and thus destroy that part of you that leaves you consuming other people. It’s a good, albeit, imperfect solution reflecting a reasonable understanding of how people work — but if habits aren’t tied coherently to our ultimate loves, they aren’t shaping us in any particularly identity shifting way, they aren’t liturgy in the sense described above, and if our ultimate love is still a ‘created thing’ then we’re in just as much trouble according to Romans 1.

While we’re on Fight Club and ‘created things’, if you’ll indulge a tangent… Fight Club shares the same understanding of the idolatrous human condition — our life as worshippers — as Wallace and Smith and these three posts. In the scene where the narrator’s apartment is disintegrating before his eyes, the things that consumed his desires go up in smoke; demonstrating to him that their value wasn’t (and isn’t) actually ultimate. He makes these observations about the stuff and the meaning we instill in our stuff… and he shows that our idolatrous consumption isn’t just tied to sex and porn. There are other narratives where we’ve created a liturgy for ourselves; whether its the porn habit, or the IKEA accumulation habit…

Something which was a bomb, a big bomb, had blasted my clever Njurunda coffee tables in the shape of a lime green yin and an orange yang that fit together to make a circle. Well they were splinters, now. My Haparanda sofa group with the orange slip covers, design by Erika Pekkari, it was trash, now. And I wasn’t the only slave to my nesting instinct. The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue. We all have the same Johanneshov armchair in the Strinne green stripe pattern. Mine fell fifteen stories, burning, into a fountain.

You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you. — Fight Club, Narrator

Self-improvement via self-discipline even if it’s self-sacrifice for the sake of others will only get you so far because it’s still the worship of a created thing; of images made to look like mortal human beings. It won’t answer that gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing; it won’t really meet the need we’re grasping for because our telos as humans involves us looking for the right thing to worship, because it’s not the right thing to worship (even if it involves right habits of worship). It doesn’t ultimately change our story or our loves so that our ultimate love is not something that should be loved after first loving the Lord your God with all your heart. We’re definitely called to love our neighbour as we love ourselves and that should change our approach to pornography, but the first bit Jesus says is the most important bit.

Pornography is worship. Deadly worship. But worshipping ourselves (loving ourselves ultimately) or others (loving our neighbours ultimately) isn’t actually less deadly (though it might be less damaging to people around you). If you really don’t buy the God stuff then just go immerse yourself in This Is Water on repeat for a few hours and then habitually look for myriad petty little ways to serve others with your life. It’ll change the world.

3. Change what you worship via the ‘expulsive power of a new affection’ (good)

Smith’s understanding of the human being as a worshipping being isn’t new. It’s not revolutionary. It’s the understanding put forward by the Old Testament, the New Testament, the inter-testamental literature, the early church, Augustine, the Reformers, and the Puritans. It’s not a revolution. It’s our buy-in to the enlightenment-modernist-cartesian concept of the person as only or primarily a ‘thinking thing’ that makes it seem ground breaking. But if all these people are right then you don’t think your way out of a terrible and destructive pattern of deadly idolatry; or even simply act your way out of it using accountability software, tracking, or even self-flagellation… you worship your way out.

You don’t combat wrong worship by fixating on the thing you’re trying to stop being consumed by, or by fixating on some other idol instead.

We combat wrong worship with right worship.

The real worship war is against porn and other idols. You fight porn, and other idols, with Jesus. By worshipping Jesus. By taking on the challenge from Jesus to first “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength and all your mind” (Luke 10:27). God is after all the bits of you that porn claims. Your heart. Your imagination. Your habits. Your very self.

This fight will involve the habits, certainly, a new liturgy to combat and replace the old one. It’ll involve us being those who participate in true worship where we ‘offer ourselves as a living sacrifice’ tied to a renewing of the mind away from the patterns of this world (Romans 12:1-3, ultimately this is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit, at least according to Romans 8). The next post in this series will consider some alternative liturgies, or an alternative framework for understanding liturgy to both the liturgies of idolatry and the solutions put forward by Smith.

But first it involves a new story, a new understanding of our telos and identity, that we’re being conformed into the image of Jesus, and a new love that fires our imagination and desires and occupies our worship such that the idols we’re at war with fall into disrepair and fade away into disuse like so many ancient temples. In our world there are temples that have been torn down by conquerers who hold rival religious beliefs — like ISIS is doing in Syria — and temples that have simply been abandoned because not only did nobody see their value any more, the gods the temples housed have been replaced by new loves in the hearts of the people who built them. That’s what we have to do to fight porn — to fight in the worship wars — love Jesus more, and believe he offers something better than a finite number of orgasms in response to a real human person magically (cursedly) reduced to some flesh coloured pixels on a screen.

We need what the 19th century Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers called the expulsive power of a new affection” — a love that pushes all other loves out of God’s rightful place as the object of our worship. It’s not enough just to show that our worldly idol-emperors — like pornography — have no clothes (see what I did there)m we also have to replace them with something plausibly better and truer and more satisfying.

“And it is the same in the great world. We shall never be able to arrest any of its leading pursuits, by a naked demonstration of their vanity. It is quite in vain to think of stopping one of these pursuits in any way else, but by stimulating to another. In attempting to bring a worldly man intent and busied with the prosecution of his objects to a dead stand, we have not merely to encounter the charm which he annexes to these objects – but we have to encounter the pleasure which he feels in the very prosecution of them. It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the charm, by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. We must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influences, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest, and hope, and congenial activity, as the former…

To obliterate all our present affections by simply expunging them, and so as to leave the seat of them unoccupied, would be to destroy the old character, and to substitute no new character in its place… The love of God and the love of the world, are two affections, not merely in a state of rivalship, but in a state of enmity – and that so irreconcilable, that they cannot dwell together in the same bosom. We have already affirmed how impossible it were for the heart, by any innate elasticity of its own, to cast the world away from it; and thus reduce itself to a wilderness. The heart is not so constituted; and the only way to dispossess it of an old affection, is by the expulsive power of a new one. ” — Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection

For Chalmers that new affection is best if it is the God revealed in the Gospel. The one who made, rules, and will judge the world. The one who gives life to dead people by laying down his life as the ultimate act of love.

Jesus is better than porn. It sounds twee, but that’s a better answer than Wallace or Anderson and the Rabbi offer because it involves a better and more fulfilling type of worship and we are worshipping beings. Porn is a terrible liturgy because sexual pleasure is a terrible, finite, god and your pursuit of it will leave you disappointed and ultimately eat you alive.

Jesus is better than porn and more satisfying, even, than sensuality. It’s time our practices, and the lives of our community, reflected that in such a way that the lives of children (and adults) both inside and outside our communities are better for it.

Enough is enough. Don’t just kick your porn habit; get a Jesus habit. In the next post I’ll ponder how we might do just that.

How to go to church (some tips for the curious)

I’ve been going to church my whole life. Now I help lead one. I guess that qualifies me to know stuff about going to church.

It occurs to me that while church might be totally normal for me, it’s freaking weird for people who’ve only been into churches for special events like Christmas, Easter, baptisms and christenings, weddings or funerals… but it also occurs to me that there are people out there who might feel like they’re missing something in life; be it community, or a connection to a deeper spiritual reality, what Christianity and this Jesus stuff is all about (and why so many people seem to believe it is true), or perhaps you just want to figure out what church is so that you know it’s not for you. I don’t think many people are choosing not to go to church because they’re worried about what church will be like, but maybe you are? And maybe this could be helpful.

Maybe you’ve never thought about this until a weird link popped up on your Facebook feed. Maybe this is a sign from God (or Facebook’s algorithms have calculated that you really need church). Maybe you don’t know what you’re missing, but you know you’re missing something.

A cool thing I read recently suggests the average person in the modern secular world we live in is, whether they know it or not, haunted by our modern world’s decision to toss the God stuff out of our public and private lives. So maybe you miss church without even knowing it? Maybe you want to know why I, or people like me, give up the best hours of the weekend to hang out with people who aren’t much like us.

This post is designed to help you figure out what to do about that haunting feeling, to satisfy your curiosity about church, or know how to react when a well-meaning Christian friend invites you to church and you want to humour them. It’s comprehensive, and has headings and bolded bits, so you can scroll up and down to find things you want to know before heading to church. If you don’t need any of this stuff, why not try church somewhere near you this weekend. Make a day of it.

Before you get there

So you’ve decided to go to church. This stuff is easiest if you’re going with someone and you have a specific church to check out. But let’s assume that’s not the case.

Get online

Most churches worth visiting have a website, some use social media. A website will give you a sense of the personality of the place, so will a church’s Facebook page and the stuff they choose to share. Especially photos. Especially photos of people. If you’re really serious maybe search for the pastors/ministers/leaders on Facebook and see if they’re totally weird. You’ve got amazing tools at your disposal to get a sense of what church will be like before you get there.

Check the starting time and any other details you might need (like transport, parking info, etc). Not all churches will tell you how long the official stuff goes for, but sometimes you can get an idea if a church has more than one service and they back on to each other. I probably wouldn’t go anywhere that went longer than 90 minutes, 60 is great, but we do sit through 3 hour movies these days…

Be prepared to sift through some jargon

Sometimes these websites will use weird insider language, but most are pretty good at trying to help you figure out what to expect if you head along. Believe it or not, churches love visitors. Some of us are still trying to figure out how to speak to an Australia where a significant majority of people say they’re Christians, but a greater majority never ever go to church. Sometimes our language needs translating and it’s like visiting a foreign country that occasionally speaks english. But churches love visitors. We pray for people to come. We want people to know Jesus — not because more people believing in Jesus will make us feel weirder, but because we think Jesus is good news, and good for you, and Jesus tells us to love our neighbours. If a church doesn’t strike you as sounding like it loves visitors. Don’t go. I’d rather your experience of church is one where you feel like people really want you to be there with them.

Some jargon worth knowing about — most churches call their meetings ‘services’ — this is because for some churches what happens on a Sunday is worship which means ‘service of God’ and for others it’s because the aim of the gathering is to serve each other, and our neighbours, by helping people know Jesus. Most other jargon isn’t worth knowing; the most loving thing us churchy types can do for you is be clear about what’s going on, what we’re on about, and what you can expect.

Make contact

This one isn’t for everyone. But if you’re going alone and you want people to be looking out for you — get in touch with the church via the website. Ask questions you want answers to. There aren’t stupid questions. Sometimes going into a church feels like going on an overseas holiday (you don’t need a passport though).

Maybe you have a friend who goes to church and you’d actually like to go, but they never ask. Sorry. Ask them. Invite yourself along. Maybe I’m that friend…


“Church is for good people”

This just isn’t true. When Jesus was around the ‘good people’ got upset at him for hanging out with sinners; he said “it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” — church is for people who know they’re broken, not people who think they’re too good for everyone. We sometimes get that wrong though, or have developed such ‘good habits’ (like not smoking, swearing, or other normal stuff) that we might seem to have things more together. We don’t. Plus. Hopefully Christians know everyone is at a different stage of figuring out the God stuff; a good church will explain stuff as it happens, and be patient with you as you figure stuff out.

The roof will fall down on someone like me

Every church building I know of meets the building code requirements, so roof collapses are unlikely. Some churches don’t even meet in ‘church buildings’ — we meet in a theatre where all sorts of stuff happens. You’ll be ok. Hopefully people won’t be judging you either; Jesus tells us not to.

Church is for Christians who know what they believe

Nah. Christians who know what they believe will absolutely be there. But church gatherings are for everyone. Some churches focus on teaching Christians and assume you’ll catch the vibe eventually, others are more deliberately on about making church accessible for new people (assuming Christians become better Christians by loving other people). You should definitely come. And ask questions if you don’t understand stuff. And ask more questions. Hopefully the church you visit will be friendly.

Church is a building/corporation/event

Church isn’t a place, or a brand, or even the event on a Sunday though we might speak of ‘going to church’ — the church is the community of people, not the event. You can visit a church service, but church, ultimately, is a community you join not an event you attend. We should be on about breaking the consumer mentality so common in our approach to events and focus instead on loving and serving each other (and you). Christians don’t ‘go to church’, we ‘are the church’… and not just on Sundays (and not just when we are meeting together). This stuff is a bit confusing, but it might explain how the word church gets bandied about when you’re there.

I need to know stuff like what ‘Presbyterian’ or ‘Catholic’ or ‘Anglican’ means, and which one I am, before I go somewhere

Most Aussies have some sort of family ties to some sort of brand of Christianity, it’s not uncommon for me to say “I’m a Presbyterian” (not up front, when people ask me if I’m part of a cult or something), and to hear the response “I think my grandma was Presbyterian so I guess I am too”… that’s not really how it works. Sometimes these brands (called ‘denominations’) have big differences in beliefs and practices between each other; other times its more a question of where the brand originated (Scotland for the Presbyterians, England for the Anglicans). All these churches do stuff differently, but most of the time there’s a diversity of practice within them and the descriptions are now mostly about boring stuff like governance. Stuff you won’t have to worry about for at least the first year or two… but most churches will be able to explain what they’re on about, and most churches will be more than happy for you to figure out what you’re on about if you decide Jesus is for you.

On the day

What to wear 

Clothes. Shoes are optional in most churches. But definitely clothes. The idea of ‘wearing your Sunday best’ is probably an idea best left in your parent’s or grandparent’s generation. As a preacher I aim to be dressed about as well as the average attendee, I don’t want people to think they have to play dress-ups. Just be yourself. Part of the measure of a church is if they’ll accept you and welcome you as you really are, not as you pretend to be.

When to get there

On time. Probably. Getting there early will give you a chance to meet people — most churches have a team of people whose job it is to welcome people and make life easier for visitors. Some don’t. Hopefully if you get there early, people will talk to you (I say this as an extrovert). Most regulars at my church show up within the first 15 minutes after the service starts. That’s not necessarily the best thing for them to do, but life happens. Kids throw tantrums. We understand and we don’t make a big deal about people being late (being on time or early just frees you up to be there for other people, and visitors).

What to do when you get there

Find the nearest exits. Do whatever your basic spy training taught you to do when in an unfamiliar environment.

What you do once you’ve arrived is up to you. If you’re there early you can practice the ancient art of hovering to see if any interesting conversations come your way, or you can find a seat (someone may approach you to say hi there too, church people love saying hi, and asking you ‘what do you do?’ It’s such a boring question. Sorry. Freak them out with an interesting answer.

Some churches will hand you a Bible, and/or a bit of paper, on the way in. The paper will usually try to help you know what’s going on a bit on that Sunday, but it’ll have some info in it for people who are part of the church too (maybe news, or info about church finances). It might be worth grabbing so you’ve got something to read in the boring bits (that might or might not happen). There may also be a contact card so that people from the church can follow you up to answer any of your questions or find out what you thought about whatever happens; you can either fill it in or make a paper plane, it’s up to you.

What’s going to happen in the ‘service’?

Every church is a bit different. Some churches will let you know what is going to happen on a Sunday on their website, others might print something in that paper flyer thing they hand you at the door. Here’s what I think most services/meetings/gatherings/whatever will involve.

  • Some singing. Christians love to sing. The Bible tells us to do this and singing is a great way to participate in teaching each other, and in planting ideas in a poetic way in our heads so that we live a certain way during the week. Songs help us follow Jesus and encourage each other. Plus they communicate thankfulness to God (who we believe is real, and is there with us all the time, but we’re paying particular attention to that as we get together). Singing is a bit weird. Most of the time people will stand to do that (because you sing with more gusto when you’re standing); it’s not entirely silly to think of some songs as being a bit like a national anthem (that communicate something about who we are and what we value) and like what happens at a Liverpool game when the crowd sings You’ll Never Walk Alone.
  • Something for the kids. Good churches want kids to know who Jesus is too — there’s a great story about Jesus interacting with a bunch of kids that shows kids are really important to Jesus. Kids are people. One way Christians talk about church is that we’re the ‘family of God’ — so kids are part of church not some sort of weird extras or annoyances to be swept under a rug somewhere. I love when kids are kids and they make noises and stuff during the service. My kids go a bit stir crazy and dance and run around. That’s cool (not all churches will be so fine with it, not all of us have little kids). Most churches will have some sort of Sunday School and some will have a spot before the kids head out to their program that helps parents know what is going to be talked about in that program. Some will sing a kids song. Christians have a weird love for puppets, so there may be puppets too.
  • More singing. There might be a break in the service at some point where the kids head out to their thing, some churches will use this as an opportunity to talk to people. New people. People like you. Be prepared for some more small talk; but remember, the people talking to you are probably as scared of you as you are of them. They’re trying to welcome you so that you get a sense of what’s going on. They might actually really genuinely love you; hopefully they do. And that could be the start of something profoundly amazing like real friendship.
  • Some praying. We believe we can talk to God. Which is a weird thing that might be a bit confronting. But part of why we get together is to pray together and to recognise God for who he is — for Christians that means talking to God as the one who created everything, who is ultimately in control of everything, and who saves us (that’s the Jesus bit).
  • Some Bible reading. One of the other things we believe is that God talks to us — and that he does that through the pages of a 2,000 year old book. This, again, might seem weird. But nobody claims we believe totally natural stuff; we believe the supernatural is natural, and that a book that old can say things about life now. Churches read and understand the Bible differently and understand the truth it contains differently. Some people think everything is literal, some that everything is metaphorical, some that you should read and apply the Old Testament directly to life now, others that you have to understand the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament… ours, like some others, thinks that the Bible is all about Jesus, that it tells one story from start to finish; the story of God saving the world.
  • A talk. Someone will get up and hopefully they’ll speak about the Bible passage that was read, and about Jesus. Hopefully they won’t go for longer than 20-30 minutes.
  • A prayer
  • Another song.
  • Food. Churches often have coffee and morning tea or lunch floating around after the service. If you like the idea of hanging around with the people you’ve sat with for an hour or so, then you should stick around. This is a good chance to ask questions about anything that happened or anything anyone said so that you don’t go home puzzled for weeks by the strangeness of it all. People love answering questions.

Sometimes there might be some other things going on — baptisms and communion — hopefully these will be explained as they happen, but they’re not every week things in most churches. Some churches do a weird thing called an ‘altar call’ at the end of the service where they ask you to come down the front if you’ve decided to follow Jesus. The thing is, you don’t need to come down the front of church to decide to follow Jesus you just have to believe that he’s who the Bible says he is — the divine king of the universe — and decide to follow him. Altar calls have always felt a bit sales and marketing 101 to me, but some people like them, and lots of people have started following Jesus by walking down to the front after the service.

What next?

Give feedback. So you’ve been to church. Did you like it? Tell someone. Did you hate it? Tell someone that too. Or don’t. But it’d be nice for your friend to know what you thought, they’ll be wondering; and churches like to hear about how the experience was too.

Ask questions. If something wasn’t explained well, and you’re offended or curious, ask someone what it meant. Maybe we’re bad at explaining ourselves, maybe we’re weird, maybe it was some strange jargon that we have forgotten is weird, or maybe we’re offensive — but remember, this post is for the curious, so be curious. Think of your trip to church as though you’re a tourist wanting to figure out what’s going on.

Find out more about the community. Since church is a group of people not an event you don’t just go to church, if you like the Sunday thing, and the people seem friendly, and you want to know about Jesus (or any two of those three), the next step is to find out how to be part of the church community (some churches do feel a bit more like events than communities). A switched on church will be keen to help you do just that, this might look like what churches call ‘small groups’ or ‘home groups’ or ‘cell groups’ (it’s not a prison thing). These groups are a good chance for you to meet people and ask questions, but joining them can be pretty intimidating; when you join, and if you join, is up to you, but they’ll be on the agenda at most churches so it’s good to know what people are talking about if they use those words. I’m a big fan of small groups and the idea that you really understand a church community when you see how people meet in homes and in small groups not just in the polished ‘event’ on a Sunday. So if you’re curious, definitely check them out. You can always leave church stuff at any time (that’s why it pays to know where the exits are).

Follow up stuff. Going to church is a bit like dating; and when you think about it, it’s potentially a pretty major relationship decision. For the church, knowing if or when to call after a first date, or whether to play it cool with an email, a Facebook message, or an SMS, is a bit of a guessing game based on how well people got to know you and the chemistry or whatever. There’s a good chance that if you give someone your details, you’ll be followed up. Don’t freak out. If you’re not interested, just say that. Ask them politely not to contact you, or make it clear you’ll initiate contact if you want to know more or pursue a relationship. If you are interested, try a second date, even on your terms, arrange to chat with some people at a cafe or somewhere, or just head back next Sunday.

Most churches really want a few things for you; that you hear about Jesus and understand what Christianity is all about, that you get into a community that’ll love you and look out for you, even if you don’t end up believing all the Christian stuff, and that you take the time to think this stuff through. If one week is enough for you to figure out you’re not interested, then don’t go back. But you might stay haunted by that sense of loss, and that sense that we’re not alone in the universe…

But you might have questions about going to church that this post hasn’t anticipated. Ask them here! Church is actually pretty great — the community, not just the event, and the life-changing story of Jesus is greater still. Great enough to get people hanging out with each other from across different social demographics in places all over the world, over 2,000 of history. It might be worth checking out. Who knows. It could change your life.

The real worship wars (2): You are how you worship

“One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.” — Stanley Hauerwas


In part 1 I suggested that we’re worshipping beings, and we become what we worship, and that this should help us understand that the real worship wars are about what worship really is, and so they aren’t so much about song selection, or music styles, but represent a choice between life and death, as we choose between God and idols.

The worship war — the real worship war — is not first a war about how we worship on a Sunday, but who we worship with our whole lives; and when it’s a war about how, it’s a more complicated question than song choices, it’s about what, or who, is conscripting our desires and imaginations, and how our desires and imaginations are being conscripted, daily, by our acts of worship — our habitual ‘liturgies’. You become what or who you worship as your desires align with the values dictated by your god, and the telos caught up with the salvation narrative that god offers; you become what you worship; and part of that involves a becoming how you worship.

Colossians 3 is something of a call to worship, to break the Romans 1 default, and to worship Jesus — and it starts with the heart, and the imagination (in that I’m not sure ‘rational knowing’ will ever allow us to grasp ‘things above’), but this involves the re-conscripting of our loves via our actions as we “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). This is what worship looks like (and it involves music)…

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:11-17

That last bit is vital. For Paul, it seems, everything we do has the potential to be worship — whether its that we offer our whole lives as living sacrifices to God, or do everything in his name, he blows the idea of worship way beyond Sundays (and far beyond music and the sacraments).

Sundays will never be enough for us if the very air that we breathe, and the culture we live in, crackles with the addictive unseen liturgies of counterfeit gods, like ionised air in a lightning storm, so we live just waiting for death from above to zap us. Worship, proper worship, of the real God, is what keeps us alive; and keeps us from idols (or expels the idols from our hearts). Worship shapes us because it teaches us to love; that’s the thesis of a trilogy of books from James K.A. Smith, summed up best in this quote:

Worship is the “imagination station” that incubates our loves and longings so that our cultural endeavours are indexed toward God and his kingdom. If you are passionate about seeking justice, renewing culture, and taking up your vocation to unfurl all of creation’s potential, you need to invest in the formation of your imagination. You need to curate your heart. You need to worship well. Because you are what you love. And you worship what you love. And you might not love what you think. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

One of the things I love most of all about Smith’s trilogy Imagining the Kingdom, Desiring the Kingdom, and recently You Are What You Love is that he causes us to rethink the belief that people are primarily ‘thinking things’ — that the best way to persuade or change, to evangelise or disciple, is via a well reasoned argument. Smith calls us to a more incarnate Christianity, pointing out, with philosopher Charles Taylor, that us Protestant types have contributed to the disenchantment of the world via our commitment to a model of humanity that emphasises head-on-a-stick rationalism where it’s what we know that counts.

“Critical of the ways such an enchanted, sacramental understanding of the world had lapsed into sheer superstition, the later Reformers emphasized the simple hearing of the Word, the message of the gospel, and the arid simplicity of Christian worship. The result was a process of excarnation—of disembodying the Christian faith, turning it into a “heady” affair that could be boiled down to a message and grasped with the mind. To use a phrase that we considered above, this was Christianity reduced to something for brains-on-a-stick.” — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

Guilty as charged. And he’s right. The rational model of humanity doesn’t hold water. When was the last time you thought your way into a significant change of behaviour without your habits, desires, and loves, already pulling you to change your mind?

Smith’s argument, especially clearly stated in You Are What You Love is that we actually love or worship our way into change and this happens via our habits before it happens via our rational capacity. This has been true in my experience; and in my observation of the way justifications spring up to defend emotional attachments or loves (healthy or otherwise). It accounts for why we get addicted to behaviours that are destructive and make no rational sense. We admit this anthropology freely when we talk about love. An advert just popped up on my TV claiming “Love is never wrong”… The way we think about the world is shaped by what we love. By the time our head catches up, our hands and hearts have already well and truly persuaded and changed us. And this change seeps into us from all over the place, 24-7, as we’re called to worship all sorts of gods by participating in all sorts of liturgies; the habits that form our loves. These happen throughout our lives, without us noticing, so that we’re conscripted into worshipping all sorts of stuff in the place of God. I think this is caught up with being made in the image of God, and is evident in Biblical warnings about the effects, on the image we bear, of choosing to worship other gods or ourselves.

Smith’s answer, then, for us is to push us to a better, richer, fuller, more incarnate approach to worship. Only, it’s a Sunday-heavy model, and in many ways it just seems to buy into the same old, same old, worship wars; even while acknowledging that the real war is one we fight every time we head to the shops, or turn on the TV, and while saying this:

Obviously an hour and a half on Sunday morning is not sufficient to rehabituate hearts that are daily immersed in rival liturgies. Yes, gathered, congregational worship is the heart of discipleship, but this doesn’t mean that communal worship is the entirety of discipleship. While communal worship calibrates the heart in necessary, fundamental ways, we need to take the opportunity to cultivate kingdom-oriented liturgies throughout the week… The capital-L Liturgy of Sunday morning should generate lowercase-l liturgies that govern our existence throughout the rest of the week. Our discipleship practices from Monday through Saturday shouldn’t simply focus on Bible knowledge acquisition—we aren’t, after all, liturgical animals on Sunday and thinking things for the rest of the week. Rather, our day-to-day practices need to extend and amplify the formative power of our weekly worship practices by weaving them into our everyday liturgies. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

Worship is not just music (but it includes it), or church on Sundays (but includes it), or the sacraments (but includes them)

Music matters, because as part of worship, it forms us; it shapes our loves, our imagination, and our ethics. I loved this Hauerwas quote that I saw on Facebook this week:

“One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.”

Music matters. But to call a music pastor a worship pastor is to concede defeat in a much bigger conflict — the conflict for our hearts; and for the image we bear in the world (and so whether we live, or die, or invite people to life or death).

Part of Smith’s proffered solution to the 24/7 worship wars is built on a return to meaningful Sunday worship in the historic narrative traditions of the church. What we do together on a Sunday matters. The sacraments matter. But sacraments and singing — corporate liturgy in a Sunday ‘worship’ service (which is a bit of a tautology because worship, in one sense, means service) — are not the full extent of worship, or even corporate worship (the stuff we do with the people of God). And here’s where I depart from Smith a bit; because most of the solutions he offers to our liturgy-soaked world; a world full of idolatrous habits and loves that sings to us like a siren hoping to dash us against rocks; focus on re-connecting to the historic traditions of Sunday-centric corporate worship. Especially the sacraments.

If the biblical narrative of God’s redemption were just information we needed to know, the Lord could have simply given us a book and a whole lot of homework. But since the ascension of Christ, the people of God have been called to gather as a body around the Word and the Lord’s Table, to pray and sing, to confess and give thanks, to lift up our hearts so they can be taken up and re-formed by the formative grace of God that is carried in the rites of Christian worship. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

I think he’s right that heaps of us need to repent of a pretty anaemic view of the place of the sacraments, because they are habits that teach us and remind us of a story, and so shape our loves; but we need more than that. But I’m not sure that the church Paul wrote to in Colossae limited themselves to a worship session on a Sunday morning; not if they were anything like the church in Acts 2.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. — Acts 2:42-47

Is it possible we shot ourselves in the foot a bit in the worship wars when we reduced the shared Christian life to Sundays, and shrunk the meaning of the word worship so that it focused on a particular set of corporate practices enacted one day a week?

What would it look like to see worship — corporate worship even — as an everyday activity, not just something we do once a week?

How might we do it in such a way that an every day practice is enriching and incarnate, without being weird and cultish?

In this series I want to consider what the worship wars might look like if we take up the challenge of worshipping with our whole selves, our whole lives; having our imagination and desires captured by the Gospel story as we habitually put it into practice, or put it into practice until worshipping God becomes habitual. First I’ll flesh out the model habits/desires/head model of worship to give a couple more examples, apart from Smith’s relatively high brow examples of the shopping centre, cinema, and university, of where the battlefields in the modern worship wars really are…

We need to habituate the whole week with worship. We’re at war 24/7. There’s a battle raging for our hearts and imaginations — for our love, for our worship, all the time.  Just as every thing we encounter is an opportunity to worship a false God, to be shaped bit-by-bit into the image of our idols, participating in idolatrous pictures of human flourishing, every thing we encounter, every person we meet, every experience, is an opportunity to worship the true God and participate in his story; being shaped to meet his created purpose for us. Good created things have a purpose apart from idolatry, and have a purpose in the worship wars. 

The real worship wars (1): You are what you worship

“You are what you love… You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice” —David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

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Here’s a confession. It irks me when people call music ‘worship’ or music leaders ‘worship pastors’; not because music is not worship but because worship is so much more, and our terminology matters (so does music). What irks me more, even than this, is that we’ve spent so much time in the ‘worship wars’ fighting about whether to pursue contemporary or traditional styles of worship that we’ve missed the real worship war.

If you google the phrase ‘worship wars’ you’ll find a whole bunch of stuff about music in church, and different styles of church service. There were some shots fired in the worship wars by the Gospel Coalition recently (it’s so unlike them to be combative), which, because I’m irked by the terminology slippage of the word worship, irked me enough to get me to kickstart this series that has been in my head for some time.

Worship is more than music. It’s even more than the liturgy involved in your Sunday ‘worship service’ (including the sacraments). Worship is bigger than Sunday, and until we see that, we’re going to lose the worship wars to the real opponents. Idols and Satan.

There is a real battle going on when it comes to our worship, but the question isn’t so much about music on a Sunday or the aesthetics and regularity of the sacraments (though aesthetics matter too).

I’m going to spend a couple of posts on what I think the real worship war looks like, and where our attention should be focused in what is a real battle for the lives of people in our churches and our world.

To “Arr” is pirate, to worship is human

Everybody worships. We are born worshippers, and as secular novelist/philosopher David Foster Wallace puts it in the most excellent This Is Water, the only choice we really get as humans is the choice of what to worship; that defines everything else about us.

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

What if this is the worship war that matters, not a choice of style of worship — or music — within the church, but the competition for your heart and your service?

Only, what if it’s not a choice? What if what we worship is determined for us by our participation in this great worship war, where different objects of worship are competing for our love and our attention? What if those default patterns aren’t just products of our decision to worship, but form it? What if we worship from the hands (the habits), to the heart (the desires), to the head (the imagination), rather than from the rational mind down? What if it’s harder than DFW thought?

What worship is

So if worship isn’t music or the Sunday service — but rather, those are aspects of our worship — what is it?

I’m going to make the case that worship is the whole-hearted, whole-handed, and whole-headed, attempt to reflect on, and so reflect, the image of our god(s) as we bow to and serve them with our whole being. When it comes to the God of the Bible, and our worship of him, our worship is what leads us to glorify him as we bear his image in his world. The New Testament uses two Greek words for worship: proskuneo and latreuo; roughly translated as ‘bow down’ and ‘serve’. The Old Testament pairs these (in the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint) in Exodus 20:4-5, the first commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

We’re consciously worshipping creatures; we pick a god and that choice shapes us. That’s part of what separates us from the animals (although they too declare the glory of God, with the rest of the heavens); we’re made to be oriented to God, via worship, and part of the sinful human condition is that we orient ourselves to all sorts of other stuff instead. The image we bear in this world reflects the God we worship, and so, we become what we worship with our hearts, hands, and minds.

We’re made to bear God’s image, and so his first commandment to Israel is about worshipping him — not the stuff or animals he made. We’re made to bear God’s image, and yet we keep exchanging God for other images; and that’s deadly. Paul describes the human condition — our defective worship — in Romans 1 (and I’m suggesting ‘glorified him as God’ is synonymous with worship).

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:21-25

Now let’s just pause for a minute.

Do you think Paul, here, is talking about people singing songs about rabbits? Or sex? Or some other created thing? Or about people going bird watching on a Sunday?

Now. He might well be talking about these activities as forms of worship but the sort of worship he’s talking about is actually the orientation of our desires, and imaginations such that our habits and lives reflect the object of our love. A nature-worshipper might well sing about the beauty of creation and go bird-watching on a Sunday, and that might refresh them, but they keep finding ways to practice their love for nature all week ’round; cause that’s what worship is. A sex-worshipper will sing songs about sex, but will also consume magazine articles about sex, pursue sex, and ultimately, desire as much sex, and as many orgasms, as possible in their finite life on this mortal coil. Worship can’t just be about the songs we sing — or Sunday morning — its about the desires of our hearts, and the practices of our hands that cultivate those desires and inform our thinking as we live lives that express our fanatical service to these gods. In David Foster Wallace’s sprawling novel, Infinite Jest, two characters, Marathe and Steeply discuss this aspect of our humanity — our fundamental need to worship, and the reality that we do so without choosing consciously if we don’t consciously choose…

“Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple… Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith…”

“Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you… You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self… choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice… This, is it not the choice of the most supreme importance?” — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

You are what you worship

We all grow attached to things — become fanatical worshippers of some god; and this happens whether we’re conscious of it or not as we are lured into worship by different visions of the good human life; different stories we’d like to see ourselves living in. As a result of our hearts and imaginations being conscripted, we start practicing new liturgies — new habits — which reinforce this conscription. That’s the pattern of the rest of Romans 1; defective worship leads to defective lives (and defective lives lead to defective worship).

Idolatry — the worship of other gods, or the making of gods out of good things God made — has transforming power with damaging consequences. The Old Testament is full of warnings about these consequences but the concept of becoming what you worship is never far from the surface of these consequences; worship dumb, dead, stuff and instead of being the living people of the living God you’ll be dumb, dead, stuff. Or as the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 115:

But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.

 They have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but cannot walk,
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

The thing that’s truly beautiful (and truly tragic) about David Foster Wallace’s insight into worship is that he highlights how even as our idol worship delivers it doesn’t ever satisfy. Worship sex, pursue orgasm after orgasm, and your god will give you what you want (Romans 1 promises that too); but you’ll spiral into awful objectification or addiction (the next post in this series will consider pornography as a form of worship). That’s true of almost all our idols; as we attain the thing we desire we find it doesn’t scratch the itch we thought it would, or that we become so detached from flourishing patterns of humanity and relationships that we are utterly destroyed. We become what we worship, or, as DFW puts it:

If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you… Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

He also observes the spiralling effect that comes with worship of things that aren’t God (and so aren’t really able to satisfy what he calls the ‘gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing’). This dovetails with the Psalmist’s observation that we become what we behold; what we worship. The Bible differs on its assessment of the morality of these default behaviours; it’s not just that this sort of worship of something other than God is sinful, it’s the heart of all our sinful acts.

“Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

At the end of This Is Water, a truly profound assessment of the human condition, Wallace asks the students he’s speaking to to consider their habits, to consider living a life that runs counter to this default. He does this, in part, by challenging the narrative behind these defaults by urging us to pay attention to what’s going on in the lives of those around us

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

This is liturgy — or worship — of a particular kind, but he’s really just urging people to switch idols, moving from a selfish worship of self, to a self-emptying worship of other people. His narrative here is a form of humanism (unless you take his advice to worship some spiritual thing). It won’t answer the gnawing sense he identifies, and it won’t achieve the aim he suggests (eerily, given his end), that it might.

None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

He’s right though. The worship wars are a matter of life and death. What you choose to worship will give you life, or take your life. To win the worship wars — where the real enemy is actually death — we need to take up a better story one that captures our desires and imaginations, and adopt habits consistent with that story; lest our loves lead us to death. That seems to be Paul’s agenda in much of his writing in the New Testament, where he speaks specifically of worship (in a way both similar to DFW, but grounded in a different story), and of a story that changes the orientation of our hearts, minds, and habits.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  — Romans 12:1-2

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things… — Colossians 3:1-2 (we’ll see below how this relates to our habits, and is perhaps the product of our habits).

Paul’s approach to worship differs from DFW’s because his story connects us to something transcendent; something beyond ourselves; something above, something infinite. It’s built from a better story — the story of the transcendent God who both calls us to worship him alone, and makes himself knowable in the ultimate act of love and sacrifice in Jesus’ divinity; and who provides the model of the ultimate worshipper in Jesus’ humanity.

The worship wars are a competition for our loves, a conflict based on what story we live — and thus a conflict that shapes our destiny; the end of our story. Will we live, and live in the light of eternity, like Paul, or live, and face death with the gnawing, nagging, sense of having lost eternity, like DFW, or simply choose the default rat race setting of life for ourselves, and so destroy those around us for the sake of our very temporary happiness, while being shaped and destroyed by whatever it is we’ve chosen to worship.

We’ll see next post that the worship wars are not so much about the songs we sing in church, or the sacraments, or even church on a Sunday, but about much more. The stakes are much higher than a Sunday runsheet, or who gets in the band.

What do you love? What are you prepared to die for? Will it give you life? This is where the real action is in the worship wars;

“You are what you love… You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice” — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Daring to feed the trolls: 8 tips for responding when trolls attack


Image source: Threadless

What do you do when a small band of trolls attacks you, or your church, online? Whether its a bunch of people rocking up to vandalise your Facebook page, or people invading the comments section of your website, whether it’s someone known to you, or a stranger, how are you going to respond to trolls? What’ll you do if some disgruntled member of your community turns to a trolling community and asks them to target your page just for LOLs?

I confess, I hadn’t really thought about this specifically until a merry band of trolls turned up dropping offensive comments and 1* reviews on our church Facebook page on Saturday. It’s very hard to undo the sort of damage they do to your rating (but if you pick a church based on its Facebook rating, we need to talk). We received a tip-off that the comments were coming from a Facebook group dedicated to trolling, after somebody looking to cause a bit of trouble and damage decided to target our page; so I decided to head into the troll’s den to see what I could learn, and I replied to a handful of the reviews. I think it went ok.

The trolling stopped soon after; but it’d be easy to get a little bit stirred up if a bunch of vandals started wreaking whatever havoc they could on your Facebook wall. It’s in events like this that your approach to social media, and Jesus, really gets tested, and I had these handy principles bouncing around in my head as I replied. This stuff might all be obvious, but it is a fusion of PR principles and Gospel principles, which I’m in a position to offer, so having this framework might be useful for someone else when trolls attack.

1. Love your troll: Remember the inherent image-bearing dignity of the troll

If trolls are guilty of forgetting that the people at the other side of the pixels they create are people, with feelings, and families, and stories, and anxieties and pain, then it’d be a shame if we forgot that about them when responding. Trolls aren’t, by their nature, being particularly nice, but they’re people, and there has to be some sort of motivation for becoming a troll. Because they’re people, they’re people who are fearfully and wonderfully made by God and their trolling doesn’t totally eradicate the image of God in them. How we treat people who are hurting, and who are hurting us, privately or publicly (and if you’re responding to a troll it’s likely going to be public) shows what we believe about humanity, and about who’s ultimately in control. There are also these fine words of Jesus to consider, not to mention his example as he’s beaten, nailed to a cross, and jeered.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Matthew 5:11-12

2. Pray for your troll.

Your troll is a person; a person who might one day put their trust in Jesus and be a person you spend eternity with; an immortal who will be made to be gloriously like Jesus. So maybe rather than tearing into them with your wit, or your perfectly planned response, you could pray for them first. That God might be at work in their heart.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” — Matthew 5:43-45

3. Respond by taking up your cross; not your sword (or fighting pen)

Thinking this way about your troll; remembering that even if they’re acting like your enemy, you’re called to love them, should take a little sting out of your response. Sure, they’re probably saying stupid and hurtful things about you, and probably about Jesus too — and there’s a real cost to that. But part of loving and forgiving our enemies is taking on that cost and not paying it back in kind.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. — Matthew 5:38-41

The pay-off, of sorts, is that in responding this way you actually score a win for the good guys. Responding in kind — repaying evil with evil, makes you evil and loses your neutral audience.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12: 17-21

Plus, if you can’t love your enemies when they’re flinging some words at you, what are you going to do when they want to crucify you?

If you have confidence that Jesus really is king, and the cross is really a victory, then you don’t have to grab a sword (or the ‘mighty pen’) to respond to an attack, you can keep taking up your cross.

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. — Matthew 26:52

4. Criticism and crisis are an opportunity to show what you believe is truer and better than the alternatives

This is the best thing I learned (apart, perhaps, from the persuasive power of stories) working in public relations, and especially crisis management. You get more attention in a crisis; people are watching to see how you respond. A crisis is a chance to demonstrate the coherence and consistency of what you stand for, because if you can’t stand under pressure then what you stand for is basically useless. A crisis is a chance to respond in an unexpected way that demonstrates your point of difference. Fight fire with fire and nobody will be able to tell you apart from the person trying to burn you… but be different, and the contrast is greater still.

If you can’t respond to a troll with the Gospel — the good news of Jesus, his rule over your church and his example being what guides your response because at the heart of the Gospel is God’s love for you — who’ve chosen to be his enemy —  then you need to check that the Gospel really is your ‘key message’… the great thing about the Gospel is that it is the best and most disarming response to a troll. What power does someone who wants to harm you have when you know that Jesus wins, but that he wins by being crucified by God’s enemies.

5. Respond with Humour — especially at your own expense (don’t take yourself too seriously)

Being combative or unnecessarily defensive when everyone can tell your troll is a troll is what gives a troll their power and satisfaction. They want to cost you time and attention. They want you to get grumpy. Do the opposite. If you are quicker to admit your faults and failings than they are to point them out, you rob the troll of any power to say anything particularly hurtful. This makes you look human to those looking on, and like your identity doesn’t depend on the words of your ‘enemy’ — it shows that your identity and security lie else where. And that’s a good thing for those of us who are in Christ.

6. Humbly avoid getting into a silly argument, or exchanging insults, with your troll

Nothing wastes more time online than stupid arguments; and often the reason these arguments waste such time is a prideful desire to win, or to defend yourself and your reputation over and over again in the face of silly attacks. This point, and the next one, may mean that sometimes you shouldn’t respond at all.

It’s very easy to slip into the idea that thriving online, particularly on social media, is about getting as much attention as possible, and about managing your reputation so that you amplify Jesus’ reputation. But his reputation is amplified when we are humbly confident in him. His reputation is damaged when we argue and joke and bicker like the trolls who are trying to make life difficult for us. Your presence on social media — as a church, or a Christian, isn’t about you, but about Jesus. You are God’s media — his image bearers who are being transformed into the image of Jesus. You represent him, not yourself. So be prepared to let it go, and realise, when you don’t, it’s Jesus you’re representing with your words. Stay humble (this also helps you be self-deprecating).

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. — Romans 12:2-3

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.  — Philippians 2:3, 14-16

Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. — Ephesians 5:4

Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. — 2 Timothy 2:16

7. Use wisdom to decide whether or not you should even reply

Turning the other cheek is an active thing, not just passive, so you might have to offer yourself up to your troll; but that’s not always the wisest course of action. Responding is the absolute best way to feed a troll if you don’t respond in such a way that it de-escalates the situation. There’s wisdom in responding well, and it might take wisdom to realise that not responding at all is the best bet. I lean towards responding because of the next point. But Proverbial wisdom reminds us that there’s a paradox to navigate here so that we don’t end up looking like we’re part-troll ourselves.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    or he will be wise in his own eyes. — Proverbs 26:4-5

One thing to bear in mind on social media is that there are many people watching — not just the fool who might be wise in his or her own eyes, but the friends of the fool, and your friends too. There’s risk involved in replying so be careful.

8. Respond with the Gospel; invite your troll to de-trollify by meeting Jesus

Your troll is a person; your response to their warped view of God’s world, his king, and his people, is a chance to model the Gospel, but, in your love for your troll, it’s also a chance to model the Gospel directly to a person who has taken the time to engage with you, who wants to waste your time in conversation (albeit to score points and LOLs), why not follow the steps above and see if you can also attempt to persuade your troll to give up their trolly ways, or at least have those looking for LOLs second guessing just how funny or effective that trolling is.

Educating loves: A morning in Brisbane with James KA Smith

There aren’t many writers whose works I’ve devoured with the enthusiasm with which I’ve devoured James K.A. Smith’s work in the last few years. He has a way of both articulating and stretching the way I think, and his theological framework has rich potential in ways he hasn’t even begun to tap into yet in his writing. I’m finding it incredibly useful not just in thinking about how we evangelise and disciple, but how I deal with people pastorally. So I’m thankful for him, and I was thrilled to interview him recently for the Bible Society’s Eternity newspaper, and then to meet him in Brisbane yesterday as he spoke at a symposium at the Christian Heritage College; as a pastor I was a little out of place in a conference full of education practitioners, but I very much enjoyed the conference.

While I’m not an ‘educator’, I’m passionate about education  — Christians need to figure out how to live well, and speak well, in the world; and I’m increasingly on board with Christian education, despite being pretty happy with my public school/secular university educations. This is all to say I think this matters. We’ve got to teach our kids to engage well with the world for its sake, not keep them in a bubble for their own (here’s the transcript of a talk I gave on why and how we should approach getting educated). And I don’t think reformed evangelicals like me have done a great job of doing this — the schools my denomination is involved, around the country, with charge such high fees that they can’t possibly be achieving this end for anyone but the very wealthy.

Smith’s talk, summarised below, won’t be new to those who’ve read his books or watched other talks on YouTube, but it’s always nice to hear someone in the flesh, and, when meeting them, to find out they’re both humble and willing to speak to people who approach them (even it it’s for weird ‘selfie’ requests).

Any bits of this summary that don’t make sense are a failure of my fingers to keep pace, and lots of this is as close as possible to direct quotes, while other bits are summaries.

Higher Education: What’s love got to do with it? Longings, desires and human flourishing. 

Smith’s ‘axiom’: Every pedagogy implicitly assumes an anthropology.

Every philosophy of education/strategy assumes implicitly/tacitly some model of what human beings are, and therefore what learners are.

The university has assumed an anthropology that is a lot newer than we might realize, that is contingent and challengable. Christian teaching and learning should work from a different model.

The water in which higher education swims is largely, now, a German production. The assumptions about what a university should be are post-enlightenment, 18th-19th German education, which became a model exported into the US, UK, and probably Australia. As an enlightenment institution the assumed model of the human person is the “thinking thing” model — the university model assumes humans are primarily brains on a stick. The task of education and the university is the depositing of beliefs into the intellectual recepticles of thinking things in order to equip them for a particular task. You get the prioritizing of the brain that is then wedded to a utilitarian/pragmatic view of what education is for. Universities become credentialing facilities for brains on a stick.

This is not what universities were meant for. It’s not why they started. And we’re free to challenge this model. This model has been ratified by government bureaucracies as ‘the way a university should be’…

The university had a very different beginning, and a very different anthropology. It assumed a very different model of what learners were. The Desire for God and the Love of Learning a good book — a history of the pre-modern foundations of the university. Takes the history of Jesuit influences on education in Paris, and shows that it was meant to be an incubator for hearts and minds to learn to love the right things, in the right way, for the right reasons. To make people lovers of God who become image bearers in and for the world around them.

If we’re going to push back against the paradigms of the university because we have history on our side. There is an older version of the university we’re trying to recover.

A more biblical anthropology

Instead of imagining that humans are a static brain on the stick waiting for an information dump.

Let’s imagine that there’s a dynamic orienting of ourselves to some other thing — we’re always aimed at something, we’re always clawing our way towards some ends, some goal, some ultimate vision of the good life. There’s an existential dynamism about us. To be human is to be ‘after’ something. This is a very ancient picture of the human person. Certainly Aristotelian. Every human being is oriented towards a telos. Oriented to an ultimate end.

Augustine captures this as well. The ancient Greek heritage is seized upon by the church. The ‘centrality of the heart’ as the fulcrum of this drive towards something else.

“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” — Augustine, Confessions

Augustine makes a normative ‘design’ claim — we are made ‘for’ something. Human flourishing is found when we find our flourishing and end in the one who made us and is calling us. To be human is to become creatures whose hearts find rest in the one who has made us and is calling us; finding what you are made for.

The task of a Christian education is to help people find what they are made for.

The seat for this is not just the intellect. He doesn’t say ‘our minds are puzzled until they know you’ — it’s about the heart. Throughout his corpus Augustine emphasizes the ‘seat’ of the heart, because formation is not just a question of knowledge, but of love. The most holistic form of education will help us love what we’re made to love. The centre of the human person is the heart.

Desire = love

Love, learning, longing, craving: are synonyms.

We need to get over the distinction between eros and agape.

The problem isn’t desire per say, but the direction of it. Agape might be best understood as rightly directed eros. Christian agape is the right orientation of our ‘erotic’ centre, which is actually made for God.

This restlessness — every human creature is created as a lover. With this engine of desire that drives us towards something ultimate. But that’s no guarantee that they find their end in the one that has made them. The effect of the fall; of sin; brokenness, is not that we turn off love, but that we start loving the wrong things in the wrong way. We take created things and vault them up as if they were the creator. We absolutise them and seize upon them as if they were something ultimate. Idolatry. The dynamics of idolatry are not primarily intellectual; they are erotic. We desire the wrong things in the wrong way. These things aren’t wrong in themselves. If you love them in a way ordered by your love for the creator, that’s ‘rightly ordered love’…

How do I learn to love?

If I am what I love, and if you are what you love, then the crucial question is how does my heart get aimed? How does this orientation happen?

We’ve not always had the best resources at our disposal in the protestant tradition. You learn to love by practice. Your ultimate longings are not just the outcome of ideas and beliefs deposited in your mind. They are more like habits that you acquire through being immersed in rituals and routines that train your loves at an unconscious level.

Your loves are more ‘caught’ than ‘taught’ — there’s a problem with this expression that we have a narrow view of what teaching is.

What would teaching look like if we did it like this?

The indexing of our desires towards something ultimate is not just about what you know or believe, it’s a disposition that arrives from the rituals and practices that you are immersed in. They find your way to your heart through your body. You are conscripted into ways of life that come from your practices.

We’re taught to love in all sorts of places that are not schools. This kind of learning of a passion — this acquisition of a heart’s disposition happens in a holistic experience where we are immersed in a story of what the good life looks like; of what flourishing looks like.

All kinds of institutions and practices are ‘pedagogies of desire’ that are training us to love something that is not ultimate. These things get hold of us in tactile, visceral, experiences that conscript our hearts without us realising.

The competition for Christian education is not public education, it’s less the other sorts of institutions, it’s an array of cultural institutions and practices that we didn’t even realize are pedagogies of desire that are teaching them to long for pedagogies of desire. Secular liturgies.

Every time Smith’s kids ask to go to the mall they ask to go to the temple. Which means his ideas, in some small way, are sinking in for his kids… The mall is one of the most religious sites in the city. It wants you to love something ultimate. The mall pictures for you a vision of the good life that captures your imagination and your longings; you don’t even realise you’ve been conscripted to the vision of the good life based on ‘stuff’; the gospel of consumerism. Nobody thinks their way into consumerism, there’s no good argument for it. You are conscripted into it. The mall has a model of outreach called ‘marketing’ — marketing knows that you’re lovers and desirers. Marketing doesn’t give you information. It’s hard to watch an ad about a product and acquire information about it; what happens is you see a product embedded in a story. This story pictures for you a vision of the good life, and you start, over time, to picture yourself in that life. You don’t even realise you’re learning to love something else. The repetition, the immersion, conscripts you into a rival gospel. If I ask you — there’s a disconnect between what we know and what we love — if I ask you “what do you love” — you’ll give me the right answer: “I love God”… there can be a gap between what we know we believe because we underestimate the impact our desires have, and our conscription to other desires, that get in the way.

What we’re really talking about is rehabituation. Love as we’re describing it here isn’t an emotion, or a feeling, it’s a habit.

We use the word ‘habit’ in a way that is different to the philosophers, and how it has been used historically; the habit is actually the internal disposition/the inclination to some end, we acquire through different rhythms and routines. Putting the left sock on first every time is a practice, a ritual, they inscribe in you a habitual disposition; you become the kind of person whose default leans in that direction. To have a habit is to be so disposed towards doing something that you do it without even thinking about it.

Your loves, your most fundamental inclinations of your heart, aren’t just trickled down, but are caught bottom up from something that inscribes in you a disposition. Secular liturgies teach us to love certain goods; Christian education should be about a rehabituation of the heart. You can’t think your way to new habits. If I’ve acquired disoriented habits of love and longing because they were caught through the practices I’ve been involved in, I can’t think my way out; I have to practice them. This lecture won’t give you new habits, a book won’t give you a new habit; the best that might happen is an idea might become the catalyst to a commitment to a new habituation that will move you towards a love of God.

If your fundamental loves are shaped by the practices you are immersed in; we need to realize you can be being habituated without realising it. Realising that the world is not a neutral place can be the beginning of the rehabituation. You can be acquiring dispositions without recognizing it. How does this affect those who teach? What are the ways we pick up habits that shape us as we teach.

We are creatures of habit, who are made to love, and our loves are shaped and acquired through the rhythms and practices we are immersed in; none of this is a surprise to God. What does God do? He’s an incarnating God who meets us where we are and comes to us not just with a message, or the information that we need, we see that the Gospel is an invitation for us to find ourselves anew in a community, which is the body of Christ, an invitation to be welcomed into a reforming body; a reforming community of practice, animated by the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us new rituals by which we might habituate ourselves into a new way of living in the world.

If we have a negative take on rituals and liturgies; the devil gets all the good ones. Cultures are more than happy to offer us rituals. You can’t undo the deformative power of cultural practices by giving people new ideas. It won’t work. We’re desirers, not just thinking things. One of the ways we’ve gone wrong is that we thought the way to fight the fire of cultural deformation was through intellectual formation. What you need is Christ-oriented, spirited, reformation. Fighting fire with fire. Inviting people into communities of practice and liturgies that are reforming our hearts. It has to be an invitation for the whole person to learn to love again; it has to meet us as whole creatures.

Worldview? Smith has two cheers for the concept of world view…

The goal of a gospel centered approach to education isn’t just a narrow focus on soul rescue, or a particular understanding of ministry; God’s concern is as wide as the world itself. There is no learning that isn’t animated by some confession, outlook, or perspective on things. A Christian education brings the Gospel to bear on all of creation; there is no education that isn’t confessional. I’m all for that.

My only pushback on worldview paradigms; it tends to do all this in an intellectualist way; equipping people with a view, and ideas, to see the world so they can act in it in a particular way. It has tended to miss all of the dynamics of habituation, deformation and reformation of habit. We need more than ‘worldview’ — with all of that right emphasis in place, we need to see that a holistic, radical, Christian education will also take into consideration the heart. Reformation is a shift in our centre of gravity.

Scandal of the Evangelical Mind — Mark Noll — what happened in that movement was that nothing pushed back on the basic Germanic model of education. It basically said Christians can play that game too. We did. Plantinga, Wolterstorff, etc. A bunch of scholars showed we could play that game, but this isn’t entirely the game we should want to play, even if we value research.

A shift in the centre of gravity that expands from informational perspectives so that the scope of our concern includes the gut.

We’re remembering something about the university that the university forgot in modernity.

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive” — Iraneus.

Packer once co-authored a book Christianity: The True Humanism. The power of the Gospel is that we learn how to be human again. Jesus shows us what it looks like to be human. A Christian education should be a way to realise human flourishing. In our age the opportunity may be that Christian colleges and universities are the last outpost to remind us how to be human.

The practices of worship have a missional power about them. It’s important that we frame them so they don’t become superstitious. If these practices are animated by the Spirit there can be certain virtue in going through the emotions.

The kind of liturgies; there’s always going to be something about words. Posture, bodily posture, captures and teaches us something. Practices can have a dynamic that we don’t realise.


If we know all this, in Christian schools, how do we not ‘indoctrinate’ so that we engage with the free will of the person?

We need to be honest and up front about why we do what we do, and what we’re inviting people into. The freedom moment is in choosing to come here, where you’ll be committing yourself to these practices… there’s a lot of room to work out ‘Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief’…

Practice hospitality. Really, really, important. What does it look like for us to welcome other faiths into what is an unapologetically Christian project?

Indoctrination is a particularly ‘intellectual’ project. It’s a risk of every mode of education. That sort of institution is less inclined to be upfront and honest about what you’re being inducted into.

How do we physically shape our learning institutions to enable the sort of ‘learning’ in community that you spoke about?

Architecture: the material environments of where we learn will foster the way we see the world, the way we do community, etc. Thinking about how the material conditions of a space foster community would be one thing. Micro-rituals have macro significance. The university might have a thousand different routines that collectively constitute an ethos. It has to be a concert between all the teaching and cultural spaces; they have to be animated by the same story so people don’t feel like they’re inhabiting different worlds as they move around, but nor should things just ‘repeat’ — there’s no ‘extra curricular’ there’s just ‘co curricular’… nothing in here is meant to undercut curriculum. All the gears of an institution, ideally, move in concert with each other.

Learning the Aussie (and spiritual) virtue of hospitality from and for the outsider


Image Credit: Wikipedia article on Halal Snack Packs

On election night in Australia, in the midst of the chaos and the commercial networks clamouring for ‘worst possible election graphic/metaphor’ and Laurie Oakes’ tie-switching gazumping of the gambling industry there was a moment of pure beauty; a beauty that some may have interpreted as political pointscoring if it were disingenuous, but that I choose to see as a glimmer of something both transcendent and fundamentally human; a reminder that we, as Aussies, whatever our differences, should be able to share something in common. A literal, and metaphorical, place at the same multi-cultural, multi-faith table. Part of being Australian, I think, is operating in the realisation that hospitality is a central virtue, and in the practice of hospitality we’re to be both hosts and guests; and that nothing kills hospitality as fast as fear.

This revelatory moment came when Labor senator Sam Dastyari, of Iranian heritage, invited the newly (re-)elected Pauline Hanson, famous for her anti-Islam ‘no halal’ platform, to join him for a halal snack pack in the western suburbs of Sydney. According to the SMH story on the invitation, “a ‘HSP’ is a styrofoam box filled with kebab meat, cheese and chips covered in chilli, garlic and either barbecue sauce or hummus.”

I’ve never eaten an halal snack pack, but his guide to making the perfect pack makes this invitation particularly inviting.

Hospitality: a lost Aussie virtue

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair. — Advance Australia Fair, Verse 2

Dastyari’s offer was an attempt to practice the foundational ‘Aussie’ virtue of hospitality; one we no longer sing about in our anthem because we don’t sing the second verse, but that is there nonetheless (an ironic ‘foundational’ virtue in some way when white settlers ignore the way we forced first Australians to show us ‘hospitality’, but I’ll get to that).

Hanson rebuffed his invitation. She committed what I think is a cardinal Aussie sin, she rejected his offer of hospitality and mateship, an offer to share in part of his vision for human flourishing — not the snack pack itself, but the hospitality he offered. The invitation to share a meal at a shared table. To share life. To understand each other. This sort of hospitality is so vital to life in a multi-cultural context. Our nation will fall — it won’t possibly be one nation — without a rediscovery of the cardinal Aussie virtue of hospitality; of being able to share a table with those who are different. And this is extra true for Christians — because it’s not just an Aussie virtue, but a Christian one; and we’ve got a particular interest, as Christians, in both taking up the invitations of others, and inviting those whom society can’t find a place for at the table to join us.

There are implications in this pursuit of hospitality, in the context of Islam in Australia, for how we think of such things as enabling the building of religious space for Muslims as an extension of our desire for religious freedom, what we think of halal food and its place in Australia (and our pantries, which I’ve written about elsewhere), but also for how we think of what it really means to ‘belong’ in Australia (which I’ve also written about elsewhere); what we unite around as Australians.

There’s lots at stake here, because Pauline Hanson has a view of what our unity as Australians should be found in and that view now has a place at the table in the parliament, which ostensibly legislates towards particular views of what being ‘Australian’ looks like. Hanson’s view, a reaction to terror and change sounds so appealing to those of us who are looking at the pace of change in our world, and our nation, and who are afraid. Fear is a totally understandable response to change (and ‘terror’ the intended response to acts of ‘terrorism’), and she taps into it, and has built a platform that, in a circular way, escalates the fear as she speaks the fear into reality for many other people, while offering solutions that cause fear for others. I think it explains much of Hanson’s popularity, but it also explains much of the damage Hanson is doing, whether deliberately or as collateral. Her appearance on Q&A last night, and the associated contributions to the discussion by Muslims in the audience, and Dastyari who shared the platform with her, shows that we can’t take her lightly. She’s been elected by a constituency who share some of her fears (and proposed solutions), and she (and they) have a right to have their fears heard.

The antidote to these fears, where they’re unfounded, is hospitality.

This is the answer for both Hanson (and voters who back her), and the Muslim community. The answer is rediscovering the virtue of hospitality; generous hospitality that seeks to make a place for and to understand the other that will allay Australia’s fears about the Muslim neighbours we have nothing to fear from (and might help us identify those we do, should they not be interested in the exercise of hospitality), and hospitality that will allay our Muslim neighbours’ fears about whether they belong in the Australian community or not.

If we want ‘one nation’ we need to practice hospitality as both guests and hosts. Which is interesting, because for white Aussies like me, that’s what I am, historically. I’m both a guest — in that I am a descendant of those who settled having ‘come across the seas’; and a host, in that my family has been here for generations and I’m now in a position to show hospitality to others. One might say I’m morally obliged to do that either because of the (largely ‘inherited’) cultural wealth I enjoy as an Aussie in a world where such wealth is rare, or the story I participate in as an Aussie enjoying the boundless plains I did not create, or just that I have more wealth to share than most people alive today. I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with welcome to country ceremonies at public events because they remind me of some truth that this isn’t really my home, or that it wasn’t first my home, but another peoples’; but this extension of a welcome, an act of generosity from another Australian people — our ‘first Australians’ — should model something to me that I then pass on to others. It’s the articulation of a fundamental Aussie virtue that stands in the face of past fear, injustice, and terror — the stuff that European settlers perpetrated on others, and if we can’t learn from this welcome as modern Australians and be true to our national anthem, then we’ve lost any hope of being ‘one nation’ as others join us from across the seas. My discomfort in welcome to country ceremonies — the discomfort of feeling a sense of forgiveness and hospitality in the face of inherited guilt — is a powerful reminder that we are all, as people, both guests and hosts in this nation, and this world. In a sense, as Christians, we also understand first nation people to be guests in God’s land, as an extension of our role as God’s image bearing stewards who are placed in an embodied sense, in his world, to do the work of caring for it (in a Genesis 1 sense)… or as Paul puts it in Acts:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ — Acts 17:26-28

We are both guests and hosts. 

This is part of the Australian story — because it is a part of every Australian story, from the first Australians whose relationship with the land was predicated on some sense of being guests and stewards, to all those who have joined in the call to share our ‘boundless plains’ with others — being an Aussie means being both guest and host; hospitality is a foundational Aussie virtue, if not the foundational Aussie virtue. And fear is the enemy of hospitality. It leads us to put up walls, to build ghettos, to demarcate the ‘other’, to attempt, as Hanson, Andrew Bolt, and TV host Sonia Kruger have, to limit the extent of our national hospitality to those who don’t bring anything new or different (or dangerous, because all danger is apparently found in this difference) to the table. Ultimately a failure to practice this virtue leads us, as a nation, and individual Aussies, to practice exclusion rather than embrace. And both our past and our future have to be built on embrace if we’re to survive as a multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-ethnic nation. It’s simply too late to return to ‘white Australia’ and Australia was never really white to begin with…

The way for us to recapture a lost virtue, and to be schooled in it, is to practice it. We have to recover this practice in our homes in order for it to be recaptured in our parliament. This starts with you. If you think this stuff matters — you need to practice it.

If you don’t like what Hanson is on about, or the politics of fear, if you want Australia to be defined by what it is or could be — a truly hospitable nation — not by what it isn’t, then start habitually practicing hospitality. Not just as a host, but as a guest. Get out to Western Sydney. In this we have much to learn from both the welcome to country we’re offered by the indigenous communities at public events; and from ‘new Australians’ like Sam Dastyari and other Muslim Australians who have responded to the rhetoric of fear and exclusion with hospitable invitations. Just like on election night, the moment that stood out for me on Q&A last night (apart from Hanson’s apparent epiphany that Dastyari is actually a Muslim), was not the Muslim voices who expressed how deep the cost of this rhetoric is for their community (though that was striking) but the hopeful invitation a young Muslim man extended Hanson, not to eat a halal meal (on his terms), but simply to eat with him and seek common understanding.

My name is Mohammed.
I love my religion Islam and have been to more mosques than I have the supermarket. Perhaps the greatest influence for our family members to becoming hard working and focusing on education and hoping to be good citizens was the emphasis placed on it by Islam.
I believe the best way to increase understanding and mutual respect, is through interaction. Would you be willing to take my offer to inviting you for lunch or dinner, whichever suits you, with me and my Muslim family? And in respect to you and your beliefs, while we have something halal, we will ensure your food is not halal.
Would you accept this invitation now? — Mohammad Attai, Q&A

We won’t have one nation without practicing this sort of virtue.

We are both guests and hosts.

This guy, and Sam Dastyari re-taught me a truth that I should know both as an Aussie, and as a Christian. Hospitality is a virtue, and our survival as a nation (and as a church within a nation) depends on it.

So, I’ll be looking for Brisbane’s best Halal Snack Pack, if anyone has any recommendations.

But I also have to step up my hosting game, not just hosting those in my church community (though we have to do this as Christians if we’re going to live out our Christian story and display the Christian virtue of hospitality in our communities), but hosting those who are not like me, especially those from the margins; and those who live in fear in our changing world — both the Muslim community, and the One Nation voter, because hospitality isn’t just an Aussie virtue, it’s a core Christian virtue too. It’s part of us living our story.

Hospitality: A lost Christian virtue

Hospitality is at the heart of the Christian story — which begins with the hospitable God making a place for us, a beautiful world, and a place for us to enjoy a relationship with him. But our fear, and our failure to be hospitable — guest or host — is also at the heart of the Christian story. We fail to be good guests, as humans, when we live as though God isn’t hosting us, as though the world isn’t his. We behave like bad tenants, or terrible guests in a hotel room who trash the joint, or worse, like a house guest who comes over the threshold of your home and systematically attempts to eradicate any trace of your ownership, your life, or your existence until you’re driven from your house. That’s what we’ve done to God. That’s the story of sin; our act of remaking God’s place — the world — comfortable for us, by removing him. We aren’t great guests. And, as John puts it, as a result, we humans are terrible hosts…

 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. — John 1:10-11

This is, in a sense, John’s summary of the parable of the wicked tenants — the parable where the owner of a place that has been trashed sends his representatives, and finally his son, to talk to the inhospitable tenants, who kill the owner’s son. This story — and this statement in John — is about the Cross. The word who made the world became human flesh — a guest of the world — we hosted him here in ‘our world’ and we killed him. The story of the Gospel is that God is the great and generous host, but that we, by our own god-rejecting nature, are bad hosts and bad guests. There’s something in the image of God that still remains in us that means, by his grace, we are still hospitable to others even if we’re not deliberately following him, but this characteristic — this divine virtue —is something we take up anew when we take up the invitation to be his people in a hostile world. We become the representatives of the great host; but we also realise that we live in a world that is hostile to him — the world that killed Jesus — and that part of the invitation extended to us in being his people is an invitation into the new creation; where the hospitable God will again make a place for us, even after we trashed the last one. This new creation is so new that the world now isn’t actually our home… and so we live as guests. Peter captures this tension in his first letter:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. — 1 Peter 2:9-12

This letter is one of many parts of the New Testament that expresses the connection between the hospitality God shows us — the mercy we’ve received changes the way we treat each other, and the other. So Peter says:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. — 1 Peter 4:8-10

This isn’t just to be love that we show to other Christians, but to strangers and the marginalised, this is a Christian virtue, one that participating in this story and remembering the Cross, points us to over and over again. Hospitality is a Christian virtue. A way of living out who we now are. We are both guest and host. We model this in the way we love each other as brothers and sisters, but also in the way we love our world, free from fear.

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” — Hebrews 13:1-3

Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. — Romans 12:13-16

The hospitality will go far beyond eating with others, but it will essentially include that — both as guests and hosts.

I think the logic of 1 Corinthians and especially the outworking of what it means for Paul to ‘be all things to all people’, Paul also wants Christians to receive hospitality — especially to eat with — from those who are living out different stories in our world — the ‘other’ — our neighbours. There’s some good stuff I’ve cut out in this passage about food sacrificed to idols that I think is relevant to the halal thing, but it’s worth reading what Paul wants Christians to do with their eating and drinking…

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience… So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God — even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. — 1 Corinthians 10:27, 31-33

Are you practicing and receiving this sort of hospitality?

Because our Muslim neighbours, like Sam Dastyari and Mohammad Attai, are inviting us to (Attai specifically invited ‘anyone’)?

If you’re not, what is stopping you? Is it fear? That’s actually a failure to love, or its an indicator that you fear people and what they might do to you more than you fear God, and that’s a problem because as Christians, those who stand with Jesus, relying on his hospitality, and so following his way of love, we’ve got no reason to fear those who might hurt us (Matthew 10:28-29), or the God who judges us (for trashing his world and killing his son).

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. — 1 John 4:16-19

Hospitality — giving or receiving it — is not just a powerful antidote to hate and fear, but a powerful testimony to our story.

Hospitality is a virtue, because hospitality is an act of love. It’s an antidote to fear — the fear of God, or the fear of the unknown ‘other’ (be they someone not to fear or someone who might ‘hurt’ us). Practicing these virtues will teach us who we are, and continue to make us who we are, people who are like Jesus (who, in his life, kept getting into trouble for eating with people the ‘religious establishment’ didn’t like).

So, where is Brisbane’s best Halal Snack Pack? Anyone got a lead?



How not to vote (3): Three more reasons not to just vote to secure a plebiscite, and one secular reason to vote for same sex marriage


I’ve posted a guide to voting as a Christian in this election, and some initial summary reasons that a plebiscite might be a bad idea, and specifically why voting for a plebiscite as a means to securing freedom of religion or speech is a bad idea. Here are three more reasons not to vote just for a plebiscite. Again, and particularly for this post; the standard disclaimer applies. I’m speaking as an individual, a Christian, looking to figure out how we live well in our society through to this election, a potential plebiscite, and beyond. I’m not speaking for my church, denomination, Christians everywhere, or whatever… And I’m quite open to being persuaded that I’m wrong or have missed something.

1. Don’t vote for a plebiscite because you fear a changing world

There’s plenty of fear operating in the conservative community, both inside and outside the church, because the world is changing very, very, quickly. Or rather, it has changed pretty slowly but like the frog in a boiled-from-cold pot of water, we’ve only just realised the temperature has hit boiling point.

These changes have been coming for a long time — changes in how we understand democracy, how we disagree, the role the media plays in fuelling disagreement, changes in the place of religion, and Christianity, in the public square, a change in the ultimate common objects of love in our community so that sexual freedom is the ultimate good, and it trumps all other considerations; all of these changes are significant in and of themselves, and all of them are frightening for a bunch of Christian voices. Some of these voices are now seeing marriage, and its definition, as the final frontier (others are seeing it as some sort of last bastion to fight for before they come for what we really treasure: free speech).

Christians aren’t meant to fear the world. We have no good reason to fear the world, and good reasons not to, and we also have good reasons to believe that the world will cause us temporary pain. We are citizens of God’s kingdom before we’re citizens of earth, and that controls our destiny. We’re followers of Jesus — who the world hated and crucified, and yet he was raised from the dead and said, in talking about how we’d be treated by the world:

“What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” — Matthew 10:27-28

2. Don’t vote for a plebiscite because you think it is ‘democratic’

A plebiscite is not the answer. It might feel democratic — and its a form of democracy — but its not a good form of democracy. It’s the form that isn’t about a government protecting the freedoms and difference of the communities and individuals it governs for; it’s the form of government that isn’t about leaders who embody certain virtues making decisions with wisdom; it’s the form of democracy where majority rules and where persuasion and manipulation win out.

And so, these voices that tell us how to vote at this election because it is different are telling us not to rely on the principles of our liberal democracy but populism — we realise that the principles of liberal democracy almost necessarily lead to a community-within-our-community — the gay and lesbian community — having their voice heard on the definition of marriage so that it would include their relationships, so we want to turn to a different form of democracy. One where the majority might rule in our favour if we’re able to say just the right things. Populism. Majority rules.

This is a dangerous version of democracy. It isn’t about giving everybody equal standing under the law, and an equal share of the public life. It’s about giving the most popular position a disproportionate amount of power over public life — total control. And this will be dangerous for Christians for the other 2.5 years of a 3 year term, or for the future. Direct democracy, which is becoming popular because the internet allows it, is a stupid, stupid, idea.

If we want majority to rule, and so argue for a plebiscite as a good way to do serious and important political decision-making, then we need to carefully figure out why this issue is worth it and other issues are not. Adopting a blanket rule that populism is how we want government to happen (and its bad enough when its the opinion polls shaping our policy platforms), we also risk doing significant damage to our increasingly marginal position in the community if we want to make populism the way democracy happens because it might suit us now. It’s a live by the sword, die by the sword deal.

Do you really want the tides of populism turning on the church? Especially if in the plebiscite we manage to offend everyone by assuming they’ll listen to arguments from the 1960s, and we fail to understand what people are actually asking for? Especially if we’re seen as wanting God’s law to rule a secular nation (a legitimate criticism, though it’s because we believe it is good for society) or not loving gay people.

3. Don’t vote for a plebiscite because you think defending marriage is the way to love your neighbours

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre talks about what happens to ‘morality’ when we shift looking at other people as ‘ends’ in themselves, and start treating them as a ‘means to an ends’ — he suggests there’s no morality outside of seeing other people as their own ends. In a plebiscite, where we Christians are told to seek a particular result and to try to persuade people to vote the same way, there’s almost no chance we’ll be using our speech to do anything but treat other people as a means to this greater end — securing the result we want.

And in the process, we risk turning our neighbours into objects to argue with and persuade (rather than people to understand and love), and further run the risk of marginalising already marginalised people in our community — gay and lesbian people — both in the wider community, and in those in our Christian community-within-the-community who are seeking to live faithfully for Jesus. We straight married people have the tendency to see the world, sexuality, and marriage, through the grid of our own normal experience and so take certain ‘realities’ for granted. We don’t know when we’re going to say things that our same sex attracted brothers and sisters find soul crushing and debilitating, unless we let them take the lead a little on this.

This is a pastoral minefield that we’re encouraging people to shut their eyes and run around in hoping to secure a particular result in the political minefield a plebiscite presents.

I’m particularly worried about the way we speak about marriage being idolatrous and being pastorally damaging. As Christians we don’t believe marriage is the best unit for a flourishing society; or for our children: a village of people following Jesus is.

Marriage is a good thing, and especially good within that community where people are loving each other as a reflection of Jesus’ love for his church. Marriage can’t bear the weight we put on it, socially or individually.

We’re also going to open up the idea, intentionally or otherwise, that we so loathe the gay community that we don’t believe they have the same rights to be heard and accommodated in our secular liberal democratic state.

If we engage in the plebiscite because we think its essential to protect our religious freedom we’re missing the point that for a society that worships at the altar of personal sexual liberation, we’re trying to curtail the religious freedom of others.

The chief good for our neighbours is not found in a broken worldly institution of heterosexual marriage — as much as it is a testimony to the goodness of God’s created design for people — it’s found in the one who will restore and renovate creation, and who invites us to be part of his kingdom.

We can’t confuse the act of arguing for lesser goods with securing this chief good; we might in the logic of 1 Peter 2, by robustly living out the goodness of the lesser goods, secure a hearing from people about the goodness of the Gospel, the chief good. But the chief good is the chief good because it re-orders how we approach and understand all other goods. It, as Augustine says, rightly orders our loves for the things in this world. People who don’t primarily love Jesus and serve him as Lord can’t and won’t approach other goods the way Jesus calls them to.

We should probably put lots of energy into making marriages within the church remarkably different and better than marriages outside the church, and keep teaching people about the goodness of marriage as God designed it (by marrying them and so teaching them about God’s goodness and chief goodness in the process).

Why there might be good secular reasons for Christians to support same sex marriage

There are good reasons to not change our definition of marriage within the church; Biblical reasons and an understanding of God’s design for humanity and sex. These reasons make no sense to an idolatrous world that hasn’t just rejected God, but has had God change the way they see the world (Romans 1:18-28). These reasons are bad reasons for a world where people now worship sexual freedom, such that when we speak against same sex marriage we are speaking against a particular form of religious freedom.

There are good reasons in terms of understanding how our post-modern public square works, and to keep having a voice of integrity within it, to vote against our own interests and beliefs to allow others to practice their interests and beliefs freely, because a liberal secular democracy falls apart if it becomes a case of majority rules.

Others believe integrity requires not compromising how we see the world because others see it differently; I think real integrity requires being clear about what we think and believe, speaking for that, but then compromising because we know that is how the world works, and we expect others to compromise for us. If we want religious freedom, freedom to be Christian as a community-within-a-community, freedom to disagree with the majority, then we need to give this freedom to others.

The argument about protecting children at this point would’ve been a plausible argument had we not already socially de-coupled children from marriage ages ago, and if there weren’t already things in place to allow gay couples to give birth to, and raise, children. I personally don’t even think the argument that marriage is for children bears much weight; I think marriage — as the one flesh union between a man and a woman — is an end in itself, not a means to an end.

There’s also the question of not just how we are seen to love the gay community, but how we actually love them — especially if they are as Romans 1 suggests “their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” because “God gave them over in the sinful desires” — how is it loving to tell people not to live the way God is making them live? Sure, the reason God gives people over to sinful desires is because we worship created things in his place… but the kicker in Romans when you’re getting all judgy about these awful idolaters who sin lots is in chapter 2:

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” — Romans 2:1

We don’t love the gay community by trying to make them live a way that God is preventing; we don’t love them (or others in our community) by insisting people see marriage the way we do, as a created thing that reveals the divine nature and character of God (Romans 1:20).

If our vision for their flourishing is that they come to know Jesus and perhaps rethink where their sexuality fits into their identity as a result (which it is, not that they become heterosexual).

We love the gay community, absolutely, by presenting them with the chance to know Jesus — that’s consistent with our ultimate vision of human flourishing — their chief good — their ultimate telos. If they don’t, and can’t, see or pursue that telos on their own steam, if they need the Spirit (Romans 8), via the Gospel (Romans 1:16); is it actually loving to limit how a liberal, secular, democracy defines marriage for its citizens because we can possibly get the votes to enshrine our view as the majority view?

Is it truly democratic?

Is it loving to prevent their freedom to define their relationships the way they see fit because we see things differently by the grace of God? If sexual freedom is, itself, an idol — a created thing — that people worship in the place of God, whether they know it or now then is this not a question of religious freedom too?

Gay marriages won’t be good for people in the sense of their created telos — what is good for people is being transformed into the image of Christ…

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. — Romans 8:28-30

This is what ultimate good looks like, but there will be smaller, secular, goods for our gay neighbours consistent with the desires and other temporal benefits that come from long term committed relationships. If our neighbours — gay or straight — aren’t going to change the pursuit of their gods, or of sex and love and happiness without Jesus — then perhaps the most loving thing we can do, while proclaiming Jesus to them, is maximise the good and virtuous things these relationships produce; rather than seeking to limit vice. I guess other people will see this differently; I get that. And they’ll see the fabric of our society being torn apart and changing and damaging all sorts of people; I get that too. I just don’t see it that way. Because the fabric of our society has fundamentally been torn apart already. Years ago. We’re grasping after a shadow.

I’m not sure at that point that we can consistently oppose same sex marriage in a secular frame, to do it requires people seeing the world through the lens provided by the Spirit, which is why we need to get better at getting our own house in order within the church; so that our good marriages are part of our testimony to the ultimate good.

 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” — Ephesians 5:31-32